FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: SWEET RECENT SCARES

 

Sweet Recent Scares

by Kristin Battestella

 

Ghosts, vampires, and cults, oh my! This trio of recent tales get the scares right!

 

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in The House – Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) stars in this 2016 Netflix original written and directed by Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter). Poetic voiceovers tell of a house being borrowed by the living while dark screens and period silhouettes come in and out of focus, creating an aged feeling for our colonial house, ailing horror author, and her jilted live in nurse Lily – who must always wear white, can’t be touched, and slaps her own hand for snooping. Certainly there are obvious implications with repeated phrases, solitary scenes, one side phone calls, whispering voices, and no outdoor perspectives to disrupt our attention from the suspect footsteps and undisturbed décor. Old music with ironic lyrics, cassettes, rotary phones, typewriters, static TV antennas, and Grateful Dead shirts also invoke a trapped in the past mood implying that the thin veil between life and death is soon to be broken. Shadowed, almost black and white shots and doorways framed in darkness make the audience question which side of the looking glass we are on – slow zooms peer into the dark frames or blacked out night time windows. There are shock moments, but the one woman play design is intense without being loud or in your face. Blindfolds, old fashioned dresses, mirrors, musty papers, and mysterious boxes increase amid moldy walls and suspicious characters from our author’s 1960 novel The Lady in the Walls – creating slow burn literary flashbacks, parallel self-awareness, ghostly uncertainty, and feminine duality on wilted old age blooms versus forever beautiful flowers. Is this a linear story or are the past, present, living, and dead blending together? Again, the answers are apparent with book titles and name hints hidden in plain sight. No one eats, sleeps, or bathrooms yet this ghostly rot and repetition may take multiple viewings for full discussion, interpretation, and analysis. Although there are some pretentious arty for the sake of it moments – not the papa Anthony Perkins scenes on the TV! – knocking on the walls, a flipped up rug, buzzing flies, and a will requesting another woman writer come to chronicle this “House of Stories” are atmosphere enough without run of the mill wham bam effects. This individual horror experience remains can’t look away intriguing for old school horror fans not expecting thrills a minute and those who enjoy a seventies, no concept of time mood.

 

Midnight Son – An aversion to sunlight, skin conditions, and the need for human blood make for a deadly quarter life crisis in this 2011 indie gem from Scott Leberecht (Life After Pi). There’s not much dialogue early – and the DVD has deleted scenes, interviews, and commentaries but no subtitles – yet the visual storytelling doesn’t need anything uber talkative. Interesting schemes denote the false night time light with yellow lamps, neon accents, string bulbs, blue kitchen designs, and choice reds as the doctor diagnoses anemia, jaundice, and malnourishment. Rare steak isn’t doing the trick, but the sight of blood on a bandage at the ho hum night security job gets the heart racing for something tasty. Early Google research moments get out of the way in favor of painting memories of the sun, solitary vampire movie watching, checking for fangs, testing for a reaction to crosses, and having a laugh at the clichés. Loneliness, street peddlers, deadbeats, and debt – life’s already down on its luck so what’s a little vampirism? The vampire vis-a-vis for drug use and life sucks may be trite today, but this allegory has an older, working protagonist stopping in the corner butcher for some blood by the pint to hide in his coffee cup. Companionship and fantastic possibilities can be found in unlikely places, and it’s neat to see just how many things a basement dwelling vampire can really do at night. Although I like his bed with the blackout curtains, this is a potential turned bleak world – the natural awkwardness is understandable and casually realistic. Jacob’s smart, talented, and just hampered by his…health problems…and an ER opportunist is willing to trade blood for a price. Rather than shock horror exploitative, we have an intimate, invested view for the increasing slurps, bloody makeouts, and desperateness. Quick camera flashes leave room for suggestion as bodily changes, night vision, infections, and love bites interfere with potential relationships, murder investigations, gallery possibilities, and you know, trying to get somewhere in life. Can you be a good and normal vampire or is amoral violence the only answer? Though plain to some with nothing super unexpected, the simple constructs echo the mature progression, honest drama, and self-aware focus without the need for horror spectacle. This is a fine story with a small but well rounded, multi-ethnic cast, and it’s one of the best same writer/director pictures I’ve seen in a very long while.

 

Sacrifice – Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black), Rupert Graves (Sherlock), and David Robb (Downton Abbey) star in this 2016 adaptation of Sharon Bolton’s novel beginning with brisk New York pregnancy emergencies before moving to Scotland’s great mountains, rocky coasts, and end of the world island isolation for an adoption. Standing stones, jokes about mistaking “runes” for “ruins”, and talk of Druids, Normans, and ritual sacrifice pepper the scene setting job interviews, hospital tours, and dinner with the wealthy, well-connected, but secretive in-laws. A dead animal on the property reveals a buried body, and our lady obstetrician butts into the police investigation of this bog discovery, studying creepy photos and x-rays of the corpse to suggest the victim had recently given birth before her insides were excised. Quality science, Tollund Man references, and flood clues jar against trow myths, unique folklore, and inscription evidence. The authorities don’t want to hear any of that old sacrificial talk, but these mothers and lady cops are intelligent women talking about history and murder rather than men or gossip. While the well-paced, multilayered investigations may build the spooky versus facts with suspicions and tense cloak and dagger, this is not an overt horror picture. The story here feels caught in the middle when it should have been either a straight crime drama or gone with all out fantastics. There are some plot confusions as well – who is who and all the details aren’t totally clear, leaving an abrupt end with serious unanswered questions. Fortunately, surveillance, shadows, chases in the dark office at night, and lights going out add suspense. Late wives, a clinic full of pregnant but anonymous women – who doesn’t want this medical mystery solved and why? This is a small island, and not being in on its secrets can prove fatal with dangerous bridges or fiery car accidents. Body switches, clandestine interviews, identifying tattoos, hidden passages, and bagpipes tossed in for good measure seemingly tidy the case, and a likable, mature cast anchors the maternal fears and cult demands of this unique little thriller.

 

But Skip

White Settlers – A city couple moves to a too good to be true Scottish fixer upper on a medieval battle site in this 2014 British snoozer also called The Blood Lands. After the usual cool opening credits, are we there yet driving to the horrors, a somewhat shady estate agent, no phone signals, and a move in montage; the very unprepared wife realizes she’s afraid of being in an isolated handyman house without power. Of course, her jerk husband makes Scottish jokes, refusing to let up on his bullshit attitude even when there’s a scary break in and unseen attackers. The outdoor saucy, surprisingly immature and incompatible couple, and nighttime suspicious are typical clichés, and the divine scenery, historical references, and great house are never used to their full potential. When the description refers to ancient battles, one sort of expects something wild like ghosts or cults and past meets present horror – not guys in pig masks angry at the new neighbors. It’s tough to feel any of the supposed English versus Scottish subtext because the horror is so substandard. Eden Lake had better us versus them twists, and I swear I just saw this terrorizing hooligans in animal masks trope in at least three other horror house siege movies. Although flashlights and fog make it difficult to see much of anything here, and our wife has to apologize to her asshole husband for her being afraid even while she’s the superior fighter. Maybe this isn’t that bad on its own, but it’s certainly disappointing if you are expecting anything more than Brits chasing some other Brits through the woods in the dark. Nothing here is horror sentient – people go back to check the still body, bads talk rather than act to create a contrived victim escape, and who trusts the creepy little boy for help? Hello, McFly. If you didn’t want any English buying your Scottish property, why not blame the real estate lady who sold it to them? Or the bank that made the price so high? How is unrealistically terrorizing and ridiculously kicking out the new owners so you can move in going to get rid of any of the real world consequences?

Kbatz: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again for April

 

The Oblong Box Along and Scream and Scream Again Dated, but All in Good Fun

By Kristin Battestella

 

The Vincent Price fest is never over, so along comes The Oblong Box and its double bill with Scream and Scream Again. Though not as special as some of Price’s previous Poe and Corman collaborations, this duet celebrates not one horror master, but two. Vincent Price, meet Christopher Lee.

Julian Markham (Price) has returned from his family’s African plantation with his cursed and deformed brother Edward (Alister Williamson) – who Julian keeps locked in an upstairs room. Despite the mysterious behaviors at his estate, Julian hopes to marry the young and beautiful Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer). The Markham lawyers Samuel Trench (Peter Arne, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Mark Norton (Carl Rigg, Marked Personal), however, plot Edward’s escape and cure along with African witchdoctor N’Galo (Harry Baird, The Italian Job). Unfortunately, Edward is accidentally buried alive in their scheme. Once rescued by Dr. Neuhart (Christopher Lee) and his grave robbers, the masked Edward romances the pretties and plots his revenge.

 

He may be top-billed, but there’s not as much of our beloved, over the top Vincent Price (The Tomb of Ligeia, House of Usher) in 1969’s The Oblong Box. Although he’s less than a decade removed from the early success of American International Pictures’ Poe series, Price looks a little old for his leading lady Elizabeth. Fortunately, outside of these quibbles, there’s still plenty to love. Julian looks the worn, conflicted English noble. Can he dare to hope while he’s also walking a deadly line of guilt and destruction? Price makes the most of his given scenes, both as a disturbed brother and a charming husband. Again Hilary Dwyer (Wuthering Heights, Hadleigh) seems a little young, but this works in her tender relationship and naivety with Julian. Likewise, Sally Gleeson (Bless This House) looks and acts the pretty -if a little naughty-maid.

Hammer Horror alum and Lord of the Rings veteran Christopher Lee also doesn’t have as creepy a role as I might have liked, but his mad doctor is a high brow mad doctor. He pays slick swindlers to steal the bodies of the recently deceased for his research, but Neuhart does his doctoring while wearing a silk tie and waistcoat. He gets down and dirty with cadavers in the name of science, but Neuhart objects to Edward’s blackmail and murderous revenge. There isn’t much time for this stylized ambiguity in The Oblong Box, but Lee’s presence and voice command your attention in all his scenes.

 

Price, yes, Lee, lovely- but The Oblong Box is Alister Williamson’s (The Abdominal Mr. Phibes) picture. Yes, the masked man who’s true face you never even see and who the voice was actually dubbed steals this picture. It would have been intriguing for Price to play both brothers-or even Lee take a turn under the crimson hood- but the voice and style of both men are too easily recognized. Williamson and his Edward are mysterious, unknown. What does he look like under that hood? We know he’s been wronged and wants to see Edward find justice, but how far will his revenge go? Which side of the law is he on -and why do the ladies find him so irresistible? This is England, 1865 as only 1969 could recreate. Williamson gives Edward charm and tenderness with some ladies, then rapacious violence with others. He’s naughty, nice, misunderstood, and vengeful-not bad for our unknown, unseen, and unheard actor, eh?

The cast keeps The Oblong Box charming, but this very loosely Poe inspired adaptation from Lawrence Huntington (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents) and Christopher Wicking (Murders in the Rue Morgue) isn’t as strong as it could be. Director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) spends too much time on the stereotypical mistreatment of colonial Africa and blaxploitation-like zooms and voodoo montages. If you want to talk about the unjusts of slavery, set the entire picture in Africa and let the actors go to their scary depths.

 

Thankfully, the visual mix of the sixties and Victorian styles ties The Oblong Box together. The color and costumes are great even though Americans might be a little confused by the English style. When we see 1865 on tombstones, we think hoop skirts and Civil War extravagance ala Gone with the Wind. Here, however, the ladies “be-bustled” in a more mid to late 1880s style. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of bawdy English taverns and cleavage bearing working girls. The outdoor locations are also a treat, and there are even a few daytime graveside scenes- a rarity in these old horror flicks.

The Oblong Box isn’t perfect, but there are a few filmmaking strides here, too. The early, up close, claustrophobic deaths are from the askew killer’s point of view. We want to look away, but can’t. Despite the story’s thin execution, the charm and classic stylings of the cast win out -along with the mystery at hand. We can’t help but watch just to see if our hooded killer is caught and unmasked. Freaky faces, scares, voodoo, and violence -we just can’t help ourselves, can we?

Thankfully, Hessler, Wicking, Price, and Lee reunited the following year for 1970’s Scream and Scream Again. Who could they possibly add to up the horror ante? Why, Peter Cushing, of course!

 

 

Superintendent Bellavur (Alfred Marks, Albert and Victoria) and fellow officer Sylvia (Judy Huxtable, The Touchables) investigate a string of vampire murders. Each victim has ties to local scientist Dr. Browning (Price) and his nurse Jane (Uta Levka). Before Bellavur and morgue assistant David (Christopher Matthews, Scars of Dracula) can solve the case, Intelligence commissioner Fredmont (Lee) must strike a deal with torturous foreign dictator Konratz (Marshall Jones, Crossroads), who wants the files detailing the vampire case. Konratz has overstepped Major Benedek (Cushing) and taken control of a very grim conspiracy that has its subjects screaming and screaming some more.

 

Vincent Price is another year older now, and his old style presence and charisma is a little out of place amid fast-paced Brit coppers. The juxtaposition of all these young go-go folks would make Price seem past his prime -even though we know he has another thirty years of solid work ahead of him. His scenes are few and far between, but his Dr. Browning is so slick. He proves his worth against the hip stylings with suave answers for our detectives and high Frankenstein ideals. He’s a mad scientist with the best of intentions and Price leads us to Scream and Scream Again’s big finish. If the body stealing doctor with the vat of acid isn’t our bad guy, that’s scary.

Well, our man Dracula, aka Christopher Lee, as a good guy police minister-surely this can’t be? Again, there’s not nearly enough of him in Scream and Scream Again, but it’s a treat to see Lee young, modern, besuited and fedora wearing! Fremont has all the lines and politicking needed, using Konratz and Browning to his advantage. Who will come out on top? Who’s really behind all our slim and shady? In the end, Lee’s dominating presence is delightful, as is the freaky style of Uta Levka, another alum from The Oblong Box. This nurse’s devoid eyes and lack of lines would make any patient shudder.

 

Fellow Hammer Horror veteran and Sherlock Holmes star Peter Cushing doesn’t appear for the first half hour, but it’s no surprise that he would be the Major in charge of a Nazi-esque dictatorship successfully taking over a small European country. Unfortunately, his suave class and control over such ugly business is all too brief for Scream and Scream Again. I don’t know who the rest of the people here are and I really don’t care -and it seems the marketing folks who put Price, Lee, and Cushing in bold print knew that. Don’t Wicking and Hessler realize we can handle Price, Lee, and Cushing at the same time-nay we want to see them, we have to see them, we need to see them in more than these briefities! Forget the teenyboppers and bell-bottoms already!

It’s annoying and misleading, yes, as it has little to do with the film; but you have to admit Scream and Scream Again is a crafty title. There’s a nice chase sequence ala Bond as well, but is this so titled flick hip action or horror? Scream and Scream Again has a very interesting concept of realistic, multiple storylines amid scares and fast pacing. Unfortunately, the non-linear and jumpy approach disjoints and unravels any strides made. Each story could have been its own film, and each isn’t given its full deserving depths here. The swanky 1970 music and British contemporary style are very dated now. Scream and Scream Again might have been served better as a traditional period piece, but that probably wouldn’t have worked with Peter Saxon’s source novel. Fans of the cast’s other horror work might feel a little alienated by these vague thoughts on science and conspiracy, and Scream and Scream Again spends too much of its time trying to be hip and avant-garde with its pop music and interweaving trio of storylines.

 

I’ve been critical of the dated styles and misdirection of Scream and Scream Again because it’s a lost opportunity to do something really spectacular with our trio of horror masters. Having said that, it is still a scary and freaky film-psychotic and experimental doctors, cops chasing pseudo-vampire killers, maniacal governments torturing its subjects. When you look at Scream and Scream Again like that, well, then any fan of old school horror should be all for it!

Although these double billed DVDs are an affordable, quick and easy bang for your buck; most of them are a little older, and often double sided. It’s kind of a pain to flip the disc, but it’s better to have these gems digitally restored than not at all. (Insert rant here about how half the films made before 1950 no longer exist and that all the classics that aren’t available on DVD should be restored before any more Disney Direct to Video drivel comes out, thank you.) There are subtitles here at least if no features beyond trailers. What’s really unfortunate for Prince and Lee fans? Their next collaboration with Peter Cushing-and John Carradine- 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, is not available on DVD. Thankfully, The Oblong Box is viewable online.

Though seriously flawed and imperfect by modern standards, both The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again make for a fun night of horror and camp. Both may be too bawdy or uninteresting for the kids, but horror enthusiasts and fans of the cast can have a fun, quick marathon for Halloween or any time of the year.

Kbatz: Dragonwyck

Frightening Flix

Dragonwyck A Spooky and Charming Little Old Film

By Kristin Battestella

 

I was a bit surprised when I stumbled upon this 1946 title starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, for I had never heard of it before. Based upon 1944 novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is a creepy little gothic tale of frightful mansions and murderous tendencies.

Miranda Wells (Tierney) dreams of bigger things than her family’s Connecticut farm, much to the chagrin of her devout parents Ephraim (Walter Houston) and Abigail (Anne Revere). When a letter arrives from Abigail’s distant and wealthy cousin Nicholas Van Ryan (Price), Miranda takes the offered opportunity to serve as companion to Nicholas’ daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) at the Van Ryan’s legendary Hudson Valley estate Dragonwyck. Once at the mansion, however, tales of hauntings, local unrest, and the uneven relationship between Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) can’t deter Miranda from falling in love with Nicholas. But of course, he is married, and spends far too many nights in his secret tower room…

Though not a horror movie or thriller per se, Dragonwyck has many fearful moments and suspense-filled sequences, largely due to the simplest suggestions of intrigue. The black and white cinematography, creepy angles, spooky lighting, and haunting score by the famed Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, The King and I, Camelot) give just the right amount of suggestion that not all is well at Dragonwyck. Screenwriter and first time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) makes great strides in giving us the basis of the novel’s complex time and place, but some sequences in Dragonwyck do seem ill edited. Quick references to a change of time and place aren’t enough to indicate the move-sometimes it seems like you’re watching a film ‘edited for content and cut to run in the time allotted.’ Thankfully, performance and story win out with the help of great costumes and gothic sets.

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I don’t know much about Prince Aly Khan, except that he seemed to mentally ruin not one, but two Hollywood ladies- Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney. Perhaps more well known today for her many romances, Tierney (Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her To Heaven) was pretty and she could act. Maybe her beauty draws the viewer in, but Tierney’s expressions of innocence, naiveté, and love keep us interested in Miranda. We want her to find joy and happiness-even if the high society life at Dragonwyck clearly spells doom. Likewise, parents Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre) and Anne Revere (National Velvet, The Song of Bernadette) are stern and respectable parents with only the best interests at heart. Observant viewers will also see a young Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) as Peggy, the crippled Irish maid with a good heart.

It’s pretty plain to see that the ‘low’ farming folk have more values and morals than the ‘high’ Hudson folk, but Vivienne Osborne (Tomorrow at Seven) earns a piece of sympathy as Nicholas’ wife Johanna. She seems chubby and more interested in food than her daughter, but we feel that in some ways, this snotty style is not her fault. Her callous upbringing and lack of attention from her deceitful husband help blur the lines between this detailed look at the early Victorian lifestyle and Hudson society. But of course, Vincent Price (The Ten Commandments, The Pit and the Pendulum) plays a man who is not always what he seems. He’s thinner and more subdued than what we expect from the maniacal old horror maven to come in later films. Price’s Nicholas looks the waistcoat and top hat society man, we believe he can be respectable and a good love for Miranda-and yet we should know better. Price shows his range through Nicholas’ love, flagrant callousness, addictions, and other… nefarious… tendencies.

Dragonwyck is not a perfect film, and it is a little dated in some respects. Mankiewicz’ inexperience as a debut director also hampers some scenes. Nevertheless, gothic lovers and fans of classic suspense can enjoy Dragonwyck. Younger audiences may not understand some of the historical back-story about patroon landowners keeping tenant farmers in feudal like arrangements, but the spooky air is just right for a youthful scare or two. But of course, the DVD edition of Dragonwyck is now out of print. Thankfully, fans of Vincent Price can pick up a copy in several horror sets. It’s a strange placement, but fans of the cast and viewers who love a little bit of Bronte suspense will enjoy getting their hands on Dragonwyck. I’m tempted to find the book now, too!

Kbatz: Dream House

Frightening Flix

Dream House A Mishmash of Wasted Talent.

By Kristin Battestella

 

Despite the digital cable’s one star warning, I settled in for a creepy night with this recent 2011 thriller. Unfortunately, the real life romance sparked on-set for stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz really is the claim to fame here.

Editor Will Atenten (Craig) and his artist wife Libby (Weisz) have quit their jobs and purchased the country house of their dreams at last! As they settle in, local teens harass the couple and their young daughters for being unaware of the home’s murderous history. Friendly neighbor Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts) tries to be sympathetic to Will, but he slowly suspects his new home and family life are not what they appear to be…

Much acclaimed director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field) ends up hampered by the multiple personality script and PG-13 rating enforced by the studio here. The location and accents are never explained, nor is whether the narrative is all just part of the ‘novel being written by the main character’ cliché. Dream House isn’t meant to be a full on scary horror movie, but it drops the ball on the mystery and suspense thriller vibes. Everything looks either too daytime normal with an unrealistically idyllic, no money worries happy family or evening can’t see dark and confusing everything thrown at the fan attempt. There’s not a lot of atmosphere to build suspense, and nothing happens for the first twenty minutes. This slow start is costly time in a 90-minute movie, and a too early twist halfway thru Dream House changes the entire purpose of the picture completely. The surprise is nothing shocking; Dream House is a lot like Shutter Island. You can see the snafu coming almost from the cold opening, and the viewers are left with nothing to care about except the famous players. I came into the film unaware of its history, but it’s no surprise that the stars disowned the end result and all subsequent promotions. From just a ho-hum picture about a family in a hew house to a crime history and a man on the case, the hints to something deeper and what could have been are there. Unfortunately, there’s not enough depth to make any of it worthwhile.

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Current James Bond Daniel Craig and beautiful Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) make a lovely couple onscreen and off, but Dream House doesn’t lend their chemistry much to do. Both seem a little too soft spoken, even mumbly or shy, and the confusing plot doesn’t help clarify their intentions. Thankfully, they do match each other wonderfully- unlike most thriller movies today with couples too young to be believable or an old man with a hottie wife. Craig and Weisz are the right age and maturity, and their caring of young co- stars Claire and Taylor Geare feels genuine. They aren’t bad; I doubt any such skilled thespians could be so. However, the players just have so little to do in Dream House. You can see Craig’s effort at a conflicted father with layers and feeling for his family, but the mishmashed editing and presentation on Will’s state of mind confuses the onesided Libby further. Audiences are once again left wanting more of Craig while wondering how someone like Weisz would stoop to the do nothing perfect artist mom in a run of the mill pseudo haunted house show. Sigh. With all the focus on Craigweisz, Best Actress nominee Naomi Watts (21 Grams, The Ring) is somewhat unexpectedly decent as the pretty and mysterious neighbor who knows the history of what’s gone down- supposedly. Of course, she’s not given much else, and Marton Csokas (Lord of the Rings) is equally strapped as her jerky ex-husband Jack. Any well-versed mystery thriller viewer will see his lame part in Dream House coming a mile away.

Fans of the cast or the Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz real life romance can have a good time with this film, and folks looking for something bad to watch for a drinking game or late night party can find something silly to enjoy. Unfortunately, there’s precious little here to appreciate otherwise. The players didn’t drop the ball, but somewhere along the line, someone really did a number to this Dream House.

Kbatz: Watery Vacation Frights

Frightening Flix

 

Watery Vacation Frights

by Kristin Battestella

 

These folks should have kept their toes away from these coastal horrors and icy vacations!

 

Bay CovePamela Sue Martin (Dynasty) Tim Matheson (The West Wing), Woody Harrelson (Cheers), Jeff Conway (Grease), Barbara Billingsly (Leave it to Beaver), and more familiar retro faces star in this 1987 television movie going by several titles. Full moons, chanting, cemeteries, churches, candles, confessions, and lightning immediately invoke an evil, medieval mood contrasting the eighties women’s business suits, shoulder pads, and complaining yuppies. All the denim, mod decor, jazz, and black satin slips go for a dated, trying to sexy mood, but that’s quickly left behind after our couple hears about a chance to invest their construction business in a nearby island fixer upper – moving from the big city and starting a family unfortunately blinds them from that suspicious bargain price! Eighteenth century history, hidden rosaries, creepy old books, dogs versus cats, and a locked basement accent the increasing strange old landlady, odd neighbors, generational residents, and mysterious figures in the window. Despite pretty greens, beach-side birds chirping, and smooth ferries; all black clothes, spooky quilts, torches, and an escalating colonial tone build to tales of burning at the stake and an abandoned puritan past. Fishy headstone dates, pentagrams under the general store, and missing pets divide husband and wife alongside work and home conflicts, mistrustful realtors, and explosive jeep accidents that look quite good even with a then television low budget. Phantom ye olde dressed kids, melodramatic slow motions screams, and up close soft focusing are however, a bit much, and the credits rush over a somewhat corny finale. While the gaslighting, sacrifices, and midnight deadlines proceed as expected with twists that won’t surprise most horror viewers, the crazy dreams, stormy nights, and hooded robes remain entertaining thanks to the likable cast and ghastly atmosphere.

 

Neverlake The modern amid old stone buildings, winding rural roads, and crisp hint of snow quickly turn to morbid Shelly poems, floating bodies, and dead trees for a teen on a Tuscan visit to her doctor father in this 2012 Italian production. While creepy kid shocks, hitting over the head Peter Pan motifs, juvenile fantastics, and redundant narrations seem pedestrian; the family dynamics, would be step mother, suspicious research, and locked doors accent the Etruscan studies, fragile statues, and ancient artifacts. Whispers on the lost healing powers of the Lake of Idols and exploring alone in the woods become foreboding thanks to sickly green water and nighttime warnings – not to mention the severe looking nearby hospitals, escalating injuries, and sudden operations. Although eerie dreams may be an excuse for visual horrors or shock music and “Ominous Ambiance” closed captions are bemusing, subtle ghostly sounds, natural winds, and watery phantoms work alongside talk of life giving rituals and fine Arezzo locations. Freaky dolls, minimal technology, cemetery visits, and ticking clock experiments add to the rogue archaeology, stolen relics, hidden rooms, serious reveals, and family twists. At times, however, the plot stalls, skipping over explanations and more interesting Etruscan ties while going overboard on other parallels – voiceovers feel tacked on as do the obviously sinister mechanics, obligatory child horrors, and mystical attempts. The need to return the effigies, household frights, and medical surprises are intriguing enough without the misleading video cover and slasher label. While easy to solve for wise horror viewers, this pace feels meant for a younger audience and doesn’t resort to overly trite Hollywood techniques. Though flawed, this directorial debut isn’t bad and can be a nice little spooky ghost story for teen viewers looking for a unique scare.

 

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The Prowler Cape May filming locations accent this 1981 slasher alongside classic star Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), black and white World War II newsreels, big band music, and swanky cars. Unfortunately, Dear John letters turn Avalon Bay’s 1945 graduation dance into unexpected horror thanks to the titular mask wearing killer, battlefield get ups, pitchforks, and plenty of blood. While the 1980 switch brings a new dance with short shorts, bad flirting deputies, and feathered hair, the murderer is back on the loose attacking the disposable babes – good girl, slut, wallflower, frienemy. Despite dainty, braless frills and steamy shower boobs, some scenes here are laughable with a dated and not exactly stellar cast. The music isn’t bad, but the dancing is pathetic, plot holes and disappearing characters come and go, the deputy just looks around rather than radioing for help, and a few stupid people don’t know they are in a horror movie. Fortunately, the killer personality is unique, and interesting camera perspectives or the generally unseen beyond the retro get up filming accent very good effects from gore master Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) such as through the skull knives and poolside assaults with nasty yet realistic splatter. There are some false jump moments, but the tension raises and lowers organically without the need for amped up boos or crescendos. A creepy old man in a wheelchair, dark Victorian homes, cramped rooms, and covered furniture add to the chases, clues, desecrated graves, and fireplace shocks. The suspenseful stalking and shadowed silhouettes invoke more menace as the viewers guess who’s next. Though perhaps obvious at times with a slightly limp ending, unexpected turns and gunshot toppers compliment the early slasher staples at work – wise audiences can see the influence on Scream and other spoofs. Lone settings and individual isolation do better than large scale terrors here, making for some entertaining, shout at the television viewing. He has a pitchfork, honey, a chain on the door isn’t going to help! 

 

Don’t Go There!

 

Frozen – Not that one! Before there was Frozen, there was this 2010 ski resort escapade – which my husband said I probably wouldn’t like. Indeed there’s a lot going against this with obnoxious music, jerky attitudes, ski lift scams, a boyfriend proud to make his girl flirt to their advantage, and his jealous third wheel BFF. Playing in the snow, can’t ski montages, and kiddie mountain safety contribute to the trio’s awkwardness and lame arguing over skis or snowboards and cigarettes versus pot. The terrible slice of life dialogue and hollow conversation on the worst ways to die includes favorite cereals, Jaws, and Star Wars, because of course. Naturally, nobody goes skiing with their expensive phones, and nightfall and weather warnings are ignored so these yuppies can sneak passed quitting operators for one more huzzah. The mechanical creepy and equipment problems are ominous enough thanks to beautiful mountain snowscapes, bleak aerial photography, and up close overhead shots of dangerous gears, blades, and wires. Goggles, hats, and hoods invoke the brisk practical designs and chilly Utah locales while the lights out, howling winds, sleet, and thundersnow spell peril. Unfortunately, immature finger pointing and a going through the motions tone hamper the intriguing premise of being stuck on a ski lift for a week. Decoy snow truck rescues come too soon amid OMG boys admitting they are scared and people peeing themselves. The idea of jumping down is interesting, and frostbite, frozen appendages, critical gloves, and dropped gear are eventually addressed. However, the irony of breaking off an icicle to drink is never mentioned, nobody’s butt ever gets numb, and the danger is not as intense as it should be due to increasingly unrealistic turns. Though quality, painful screams and injury gore can’t overcome improbable wolf suspense and the stupidity of jumping legs first into an iced nighttime snowbank. You can’t use a snowboard to set a broken leg? Why didn’t they initially use their gear to zipline back down the lift instead of waiting to go by hand after its frozen? A big deal is made of smoking and matches to start but no one considers starting a signal fire? Can they still sue if they bribed the operator and were never really supposed to be there in the first place? Several intense moments can’t save this not very well thought out script – another pair of eyes to point out the unbelievable errors or a stronger cast could have made the chill zing. I would rather have had the bleak silence and the realism of not seeing the actors’ faces if it meant they actually zipped their hoods up all the way. Ultimately, the audience is given no reason to care and what should be a thrilling horror drama is more like a parable on how not to be a hipster skiing ass.

Kbatz: Lady Horrors!

Frightening Flix

 

Lady Horrors!

By Kristin Battestella

 

Because new, retro, foreign, zombies or witches – we all need some more ladies in our horror!

 

The House of the Devil – Creepy menus, cult statistics, and retro credits start this 2009 blu-ray featuring Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Payphones, eighties rhythms, and old fashioned style add period flair alongside onscreen smoking, maps, feathered hair, and a big old cabinet television showing Night of the Living Dead. Even the giant Walkman and slightly corny music montage and dance about the house has a purpose in the narrative. Church bells, cemeteries, and an imminent eclipse lay the scary foundation, and rather than an opening scare fake-out, writer/director/editor Ti West (The Innkeepers) uses zooms and movement within the camera frame to create viewer intimacy, closing in from the chilly exterior and ominous windows as the suspicious phone calls lead to desperate babysitting jobs, desolate night drives, and a maze-like Victorian manor. Yes, our Samantha is at times very dumb and unaware she is in a horror movies thanks to plot holes a collaborator not wearing so many behind the scenes hats could have clarified. Mistakes and convenient contrivances in the somewhat tacked on final act also break the solitary point of view for the audience’s benefit. However, that finale free for all with ritual candles, hooded robes, and a sudden twist ending is in the seventies splatter spirit, and the simmering, silent build happens naturally over the film. Instead of hollow thrills a minute, the viewer is allowed time to suspect the scary attic, theorize on suspicious photos, and listen for every noise – we know something is supposed to happen but not when. Though this kind of approach may seem boring to some, this innate alone trickle let’s us appreciate the dark basement and the inopportune power outage for when the titular frights do happen. It’s nice to have something different from the mainstream horror trite, too – not to mention an $8 pizza! 

 

Hush – Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) and his wife, co-writer, and star Kate Siegel place our deaf-mute author in a pleasant forest cabin for some writing, relaxation, and terror in this 2016 eighty minute Netflix original. Comfort cooking noise fades and unheard laptop tones switch to wild kitchen alarms – immediately establishing the common sounds taken for granted alongside subtitled Sign Language, feeling vibrations for sound, and hearing an author voice in your head brainstorms. Friends speak while they sign, breaking up the quiet for the viewer, and we must pay attention to writing onscreen such as book jackets and manuscript text. Understandably, phone technology and Facetime calls are important, but an over-reliance on gadgets in horror can be tiring and soon dated with wi-fi switches, lost connections, and cut power. Fortunately, the intimate home makes the audience accustomed to the hearing challenges before adding the muffled silence, unseen scares, unheard screams, and instant cyberstalking. Through windows or foreground focus and background action, we have the full perspective when the protagonist doesn’t. It is however a mistake to reveal the crossbow and Bowie knife wielding stalker so completely. We don’t need to know the sociopath motivation nor should the viewer feel for the killer or care if he has any personality, and removing his mask just creates limp assholery. The frightening unknown with footstep vibrations, hands at the window, and approaching shadows creates a better siege, and the mystery of who and why is lost in the contrived lulls and stupid mistakes while Maddie waits around for his taunts instead of fighting back. Why not set something on fire, smoke signal authorities? Having her inner monologue address the situation and the pros or cons in each course of action is also better than breaking Maddie’s point of view and using fake out possibilities. Although it’s a pity millennial viewers wouldn’t watch something that was all silent, the long periods with no dialogue, sound effects, and score crescendos do just fine in accenting these unique dynamics. While not perfect, this tale has enough thriller tense and innate woman alone in peril – and thus proves exactly why I must know where all the windows, entrances, and exits are in a given location and never sit with my back to any of them!

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Maggie Sad voicemails, outbreak news reports, desolate cities, quarantines, and martial law immediately set the bleak outlook for infected daughter Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and her gray bearded father Arnold Schwarzenegger in this 2015 zombie drama. Wait – Arnold? In a drama movie? About zombies? No choppers?! Nope, this is not an action horror movie, and gruesome gurneys, gangrene encounters, and blackened decay are not played for scares. Here the body horrors and social breakdowns go hand in hand – science can’t put a dent into the virus fast enough, and loved ones must wait as the vein discolorations and white out eyes spread toward heightened smells and cannibalistic tendencies. Minimal technology, chopping wood, rustic generators, cassettes, and older horseshoe phones accent the isolated farmhouse as insect buzzing, infected neighbors, and animal dangers mount. Younger siblings are sent away, and step-mom Joely Richardson (Nip/tuck) struggles with her faith, strength of conviction, and the promises they’ve made despite the deadly risks. How does a teenager keep it together when she has nothing better to do but sit around and die? Do you call friends for a last hurrah? This flawed father won’t send his daughter to die in quarantine with strangers, but he can’t give the painful lethal injection at home or make it a quick end, either. Creepy doctor visits amplify the stigmas and paranoia regarding these in between infected, and nice teen moments soon give way to growls and necroambulist changes. Where is the line between siege removal authorities and family compassion? Someone has to take control and there’s no time for sympathy – just the inevitable breakdown of families desperate to stay together. Governator Arnold produced the film sans salary, and the off-type surprise provides heart wrenching results and must see performances. Granted, most audiences probably expected zombie action thrills a minute and there are unnecessary artistic shots, long pauses, and plodding direction at times. However, this is a strong story with hefty goodbye conversations, and it is surprising such realistically upsetting and horrible circumstances rather than horror went unnoticed. Without mainstream box office demands, indie releases are free to tell their story as it needs to be told, and this tearjerker delivers a great spin on the flooded and increasing derivative zombie genre. 

 

Picnic at Hanging RockThe Criterion blu-ray has almost two hours more features discussing this 1975 Australian spooky drama based on the Joan Lindsay novel about schoolgirls gone missing in 1900. The innocent white lace and valentine wishes are soon to be ill foreboding thanks to eerie music and budding whispers. These girls tighten each others corsets in parallel shots with mirrors, BFF poetry, latent suggestions, and repression abound. The seventies breezy fits the late Victoria ruffles, hats, and parasols – gloves are permitted to be removed for this excursion! Capable Aussie help and buttoned up British elite mark a strong class divide, and pretty mountain vistas, wild vegetation, and rocky mazes contrast the lovely yet out of place English manor. Straightforward, controlled camerawork captures the society at home, but surreal, swooning outdoor panoramas invoke Bermuda Triangle suggestions alongside dreamy voiceovers, rolling cloud rumbles, and red symbolism. Insects, reptiles, swans, disturbed bird migrations, fickle horses, watches stopping at noon – the metaphysical or transcendental signs imply something beyond mere coming of age and sexual awakening. Trance like magnetic lures radiating from the titular nooks and crannies stir these Gibson Girl naps, and askew slow motion reflects this layered beauty meets danger. The enchanting blonde, the nerdy girl with glasses, an awkward brunette, and the complaining chubby girl – standard horror stereotypes today – all talk as if they are up to something naughty with self-aware doomed to die chats before scandalously removing their shoes and stockings. A flirty French teacher, the severe math teacher in red reciting lava flow build up and volcano rising statistics with an uncomfortable kinky – we don’t see what happens. However, hearing the screams and watching the resulting hysterics make it creepier. Incomplete searches, Victorian speculation, and unreliable witnesses muddle the investigation, but most importantly, doctors assure the survivors are still chaste. Such delicate interrogations and polite society leave newspapers and angry townsfolk wondering while the school faces its own fallout with withdrawals, unpaid terms, drinking, and guilt. Yes, there’s some artistic license with absent families, poor forensics, and missing evidence ignored. Surprising connections, however, and good twists in the final forty minutes keep this damn disturbing – and it’s all done without gore or effects. The innate power of suggestion, period restraints, and our own social expectations drum up all kinds of unknown possibilities, and I don’t know how anyone doesn’t consider this a horror movie.

 

the-witch-2015

The Witch – We don’t get many Puritan period pieces anymore much less ninety minutes plus of simmering 17th century horror as seen in this 2015 festival darling. Big hats, white collars, thee versus thou court room arguments, and family banishments immediately establish the ye olde alongside natural lighting and authentic thatch buildings for a rural, simplistic ambiance. Unfortunately, such exile to these empty, harsh, unyielding lands turns devotions to desperation with gray crops, bloody eggs, abductions, and babies in peril raising tensions in the humble hovel. Spooky forests, fireside red lighting, blood, nudity, ravens, and primal rituals suggest a dark underbelly only partially seen with hazy splices, shadows, and moonlight. The screen is occasionally all black and certain scenes are very tough to see, but such visual bewitching adds to the folktale surreal. Personal, intimate prayers are addressed directly to the camera, and we feel for Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) as Thomasin when she apologizes for her sin of playing on the Sabbath. The scripture heavy dialogue and religious names are fittingly period yet remain understandable as coming of age children question how an innocent baby can be guilty of sin. Both parents’ faces are shadowed with hats, dirt, and impurity, yet snapping mom Kate Dickie (Red Road) gives Thomasin all the difficult work. Increasing dog problems, ram troubles, and creepy rabbits contribute to the toughness – the young twins chant oldeth nursery songs to the goats and claim there is a witch at work, but dad Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones) isn’t totally forthcoming with his grief, hopeless trading, and family pressures. The isolated, starving couple argues, debating on sending the children away as the strain, zealousness, and fears mount. Ominous lantern light, alluring witchcraft, and almost ritualistic in itself bloodlettings stir the finger pointing hysterics while great performances hit home the wild bed fits and exorcism-esque prayers. Somebody has to be blamed. Where do you get help when evil would take advantage of such hypocrisy and social failings? It’s easy to imagine the fantastic or confuse apparitions of the dead as angels when the devil answers your pleas instead of Grace. Maybe one has to be familiar with Puritan history or Biblical texts to fully appreciate the struggles and references here. However, contemporary audiences should realize that there’s more to the horror film genre than today’s rinse repeat wham bam boo gore. Although a brighter picture would have been nice, the genuine designs here are much more pleasing than any digital overkill. Doubt, what you don’t see, and the power of suggestion escalate the horrors with maniacal laughter, screams, and one scary voice leading to a deliriously delicious finale. Why aren’t these niche indies that do film making right really the mainstream cinema?

 

Don’t forget you can read more of our Feminine Horror recommendations in the Horror Addicts Guide to Life!

Kbatz: Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Frightening Flix

 

 

Freddy’s Phantom of the Opera a Mixed Bag

By Kristin Battestella

 

 

The 1989 version of The Phantom of the Opera adds a whole lot of gory to update the oft-adapted novel. Unfortunately, the convoluted changes to the source sully what could be a fine macabre rendition, leaving more crossed signals than scares.

New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) finds herself upon the stage of a past London opera house after discovering a lost Don Juan Triumphant manuscript by alleged murderer and composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund). Erik has paid a disfiguring Faustian price to have his music heard – the devil has scarred his face and now the Opera Ghost must use the flesh of his victims to mask his horrendous wounds. When he hears Christine sing, however, The Phantom seeks to dispose of diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) and replace her with his muse. Will Christine come to love her musical benefactor or discover his murderous hobbies?

 

Director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) starts this Leroux adaptation from writers Gerry O’Hara (Ten Little Indians) and Duke Sandefur (Dark Justice) with a satanic warning, ominous music, a creepy bookshop, bloody manuscripts, and then contemporary New York opera auditions before a Victorian London transition. Unfortunately, the framing added to The Phantom of the Opera is more than confusing. Is it reincarnation, time travel, or immortality? Are we watching a flashback induced by some demonic spell when Erik’s music is played? Memories from The Phantom’s point of view recalling his devilish pact further muddle this twist. Though Faust elements from the novel and scenes or characters not often included in onscreen adaptations are represented, purists will wonder why these frustrating bookends and superfluous changes were shoehorned in here. Thankfully, the murderous opera mishaps and quick pace move for the 93-minute duration – the tale remains familiar enough and there’s no time to fully question the additions or the unnecessary endings that just keep on going forever. Evil elements, plenty of brutality, and some supernatural hocus-pocus make for a decidedly horror mood. We’ve know doubt that this angle will be sinister, not romantic, and many Phantom fans will enjoy the outright villainous tone even if the execution of the inserted spooky is laden with plot holes and flaws. Ironically, despite its gory strides and fiendish aspects, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly trying to ride the coattails of the musical productions and includes a disclaimer declaring that this version is unaffiliated with Webber and company. Go figure.

Fortunately, the gruesome Phantom skin and make up designs for star Robert Englund work devilishly good. He stitches up his icky face, harvests fresh flesh from his victims, and remains strong and skilled with weapons as he slices and dices. For all its misguided vision, this Phantom of the Opera is not afraid to bloody it up and out rightly mention sexual context – be it accusing peeping tom stagehands, some nighttime prostitution, or would-be rapacious action. Erik has his needs! Through his Faust pact and filleting folks, The Phantom maneuvers diva Carlotta’s exit early before going out to the local pub or spa for some more kills. His interest in Christine, however, feels secondary, lame, and tacked on to the demonic upkeep as if elevating the full on, killer creeper is meant to make us forget the obsessive love plot. Compared to what usually is the source of Erik’s motivation, this Opera Ghost doesn’t have much reason to hang around the house when he could be getting his lust and hellish tendencies elsewhere. Broadway shade, crammed in horror – the lengthy skin peel reveals help The Phantom of the Opera doubly cash in on Englund’s Nightmare on Elm Street heights as well as the musicals. This Erik is obviously not a sympathetic soul, but he’s not a multi dimensional villain either. He’s The Phantom and he’s bad this time around, oooo. The would-be menacing spectacle doesn’t do Englund justice or give him the layers and depths he is more than capable of delivering.

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Poor Billy Nighy (Underworld) is also totally wasted in The Phantom of the Opera as an angry, would-be manipulative but largely ineffective opera owner. He doesn’t have much to do except bitch, and late stage star Stephanie Lawrence as Carlotta likewise feels blink and you miss her rather than any sort of antagonist. So-called inspectors and other nondescript secondary players are forgettable, as-needed plot devices or set dressings. Without much beyond the Raoul name change for Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards in the infamous 1994 Fantastic Four film) as Christine’s barely there paramour Richard, it’s tough to follow his supposed heroics in the hectic underground finale much less root for his success. Sadly, all of these players could be excised – no name police could have been called to the opera house for the shoot ‘em up showdown and The Phantom of the Opera would have been no different. Critical in the role as Christine Day, Jill Schoelen (There Goes My Baby) also misses the mark if you are looking for a strong period piece blossom. While she makes a capable eighties scream queen, Schoelen is a fish out of water at the opera. Christine should do more than go round and round with Erik in one slow motion battle after another, right? But say hey, its SNL alum Molly Shannon!

There is a new blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera, which is nice since the bare bones DVD has subtitles but tough to see alleyways and dark fight scenes. Again, the head rolling gore is well done, but some of the violence also feels unnecessary compared to the atmospheric blue lighting, red reflections, and flaming effects. Askew angles, the tilted hat, and shadowed, one eye close ups of The Phantom also up the brooding. There is little of the actual stage spectacle here, but the Victorian interiors and layers of Old World feel intimate. As horror, this production design is more than serviceable even if it’s not all it could have been. The subdued palette, generic costumes, and low budget mistakes, however, won’t be as grandiose as some Phantom of the Opera fans may expect – Erik’s lair looks like a standard, commonplace cave set with some candles. Perhaps that’s realistic to what the underground living would be, but there isn’t enough to it for a film. Fortunately, the scoring provides the right gothic mood and melody. Sure, it’s not quite sweeping and will seem knock off inferior to the more famous Phantom musics, but it is the one part of this conflicted Phantom of the Opera that does what it is supposed to do. And oh my, shout out for the floppy discs and giant computer monitors!

 

The Phantom of the Opera suffers from its identity crisis as a horror film and a book adaptation just as it much as it proves a scary update of Leroux is possible. Had it abandoned the contemporary twists and devilish ties and simply played it straight while upping the sinister and gore, The Phantom of the Opera might have stood out from the crowd as more than a cliché Freddy or Webber cash in like those try hard, faux rip offs we get today. At times, this rendition feels like a bad edit, the audience test viewing that’s missing all its final bells and whistles. Are we still awaiting the real director’s cut with all the polish, clarification, and panache? The Phantom of the Opera is not the definitive adaptation of the novel, and ultimately, nor is it the best macabre rendition – I’m not sure anyone will ever surpass the Silent version in that regard. Mixed bag though it is, if spooky audiences, Phantom students, and Englund fans accept this late night tale for what it is, The Phantom of the Opera can be a fun, serviceable, gruesome good time – complete with the heads of divas in the punch bowl.