Well folks, we've made it to week four of "31 Days of Halloween". As we're getting closer to the big day, I'm focusing on some of my favorite horror classics, with at least one oddity in the mix to keep things interesting. If you need to catch up, you can find week 1, week 2, and week 3 here. Enjoy!
Sunday, October 21: The Shining
Reams have been written about director Stanley Kubrick's adaption of Stephen King's "The Shining", so there isn't much new fodder for me to add to the debate, beyond my admission that I love this movie, but I don't love Jack Nicholson's performance in it. With apologies to his fans, my problem with Mr. Nicholson in the role of beleagured hotel caretaker Jack Torrance is this: when you start with the crazy-dial set at five instead of at zero, you don't have much room to maneuver. Thus instead of presenting a seriously grim depiction of mental deterioration, the actor is forced to go to cartoonish lengths to portray insanity. Mr. Nicholson? Guilty.
That criticism aside, "The Shining" is unquestionably a horror classic. It tells the story of aspiring writer and struggling alcoholic Jack Torrance, who takes a job as winter caretaker at a grand, remote mountainside hotel that's closed down for the winter. He brings along his family: mousy wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who is sensitive to psychic phenomena. The Overlook Hotel has an nasty history: the previous winter caretaker had fallen victim to cabin fever and murdered his family – and that's just the latest in a long line of unsavory happenings. Can the Torrance family withstand the pressure? As the winter sets in, each snowstorm leaves the family further cut off from the outside world, and the stresses begin to take their toll. Wendy frets about their isolation. Jack shows unnerving signs of stress. And Danny seems to be seeing ghosts. In "The Shining", the setting itself is a character: the massive, vacant Overlook constantly overwhelms its three inhabitants. And the film's opening shots are a masterclass in visually setting up a conflict: the camera tracks the family's tiny Volkswagen bug as it climbs the winding mountain roads headed toward the hotel, and the landscape dwarfs the car at every turn. When it comes time for the Torrances to battle the elements, you know it's going to be an unfair fight.
There are so many spine-tingling - and iconic - sequences in "The Shining" that it would be daunting to list them all, but it'd be a crime not to mention a few: the twins, the hedge maze, Wendy's peek at Jack's manuscript, and Danny's fateful trip down the corridor to room 237. He's been warned against it, but of course he just has to investigate. Maybe the empty Overlook isn't so empty. Maybe the guest in room 237 never checked out at all. Maybe she's waiting… (Tag: Classic, Auteur)
Monday, October 22: Something Wicked This Way Comes
"Something Wicked This Way Comes" can't be called a horror movie, but it's an ideal pick for Halloween season. Based on Ray Bradbury's dark fantasy novel, "SWTWC" is not without its frightening moments; but rather than outright scares, it builds chills by exploring themes of lost hopes and false dreams, misplaced longing, and neglected opportunity.
Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade, two restless young boys living in a small midwestern town in the 1930s, are delighted when an unexpected carnival comes to town in October. They quickly discover that the carnival's pitchman, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is a demon of sorts who is out to collect souls. As the carnival folk settle in to town, Mr. Dark uses the unfulfilled wishes of the town's citizens to tempt and then ensnare them. Those who fall prey to the temptations are doomed to become part of the sinister sideshow. Seeking to quiet the boys, Mr. Dark pursues them but is challenged by Will's father, Charles (Jason Robards), the town's librarian who is haunted by his own set of regrets and missed opportunities.
"SWTWC" is lyrical and moody, full of evocative names - the traveling show is called "Dark's Pandemonium Carnival", and an itinerant lightning rod salesman who foretells the coming storm is called Tom Fury - and wistful moments. An awareness of mortality underscores "SWTWC" and culminates in a scene where Mr. Dark taunts Charles Halloway by presenting and then rescinding an offer of restored youth. The sting of Mr. Dark's mockery is surprisingly sharp as he counts down Mr. Halloway's lost years by tearing pages from a book - yes, the years do fly by that easily.
There are more tangible scares to be had here as well, including a setup with spiders that may have arachnophobes climbing the walls. But bear in mind that "SWTWC" is a Walt Disney production, so the jolts and darkness are balanced by typically "gee-whiz" line readings from the two young leads, and the proceedings end on a generally happy note. Before it gets there, "SWTWC" exposes the dark side of nostalgia and reminds us that all small towns have their secrets, and there are some wishes that are better left unfulfilled. (Tag: Wicked 80s, Vampires!)
Tuesday, October 23: The Omen
So you're settling down to watch "The Omen". You might think, seeing Gregory Peck and Lee Remick's names in the credits, that you're in for a sober, deliberately-paced family drama; however, "The Omen" lives at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's pretty much a Gothic potboiler, with its nefarious child-swapping, dire religious predictions, portentious choral chants, and a couple of surreal death scenes that would have kept Horace Walpole in business. But don't let that dissuade you: "The Omen" is a creative, engaging, and ultimately terrifying potboiler, with a wild second-act revelation and a classic ticking-clock climax. You know that movie cliché about the innocent-looking child who turns out to be the spawn of Satan? Well, it is a cliché nowadays because "The Omen" used it so effectively that everyone else rushed to copy it.
"The Omen" is the story of Richard (Gregory Peck) and Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick), who face a terrible loss when their child dies at birth. To prevent his wife's grief, Richard secretly accepts an orphaned infant in place of their son, and the Thorns develop into a seemingly-happy family. But all is not well: the child, Damien, is the focus of a macabre event on his fifth birthday, and Robert is later shocked when a priest (Patrick Troughton) tries to convince him that Damien is the Antichrist. Robert can't believe it, but the evidence keeps mounting, and eventually he's faced with a terrible dilemma: will he have to kill the child?
"The Omen" was hugely popular when it was released in 1976, and it has stood the test of time - it's still genuinely scary. Its two sequels aren't bad either, but stay away from the unnecessary 2006 remake; the only creativity on display there came from the marketing team who got it released on June 6 - or, 6/6/6. (Tag: Classic)
Wednesday, October 24: Hellraiser
1987's "Hellraiser" introduced Clive Barker to American horror movie audiences – and we never knew what hit us. Mr. Barker was already known in the 80s as a groundbreaking horror writer, and he had scripted two of his short stories for the big screen. He made his directorial debut with "Hellraiser", a high-profile release that benefitted from a promo campaign featuring Stephen King's prophetic quote: "I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker."
With an endorsement like that, fans were clamoring to check out "Hellraiser" when it arrived. But Mr. Barker's work is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. Exploring themes of physical depravity and emotional detachment, "Hellraiser" is both philosophically abstract and graphically violent. It's the story of Frank Cotton, whose life of debauchery has left him burned out and desensitized. Seeking an exotic new experience, Frank obtains a mysterious cube that, when opened, summons the Cenobites – mysterious beings who appear bearing the scars of extreme ritualistic mutilation and proceed to tear Frank's body apart and then disappear, dragging their doomed victim into some horrific other dimension. Later, Frank's brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") and his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank's seemingly vacant house and unknowingly trigger a series of events that begins to bring Frank back to life. Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) figures into the story, as does Frank and Julia's previous affair. There's murder, someone winds up wearing someone else's skin (!), and we learn more about the Cenobites and their mysterious leader, Pinhead.
"Hellraiser" is another series, like "A Nightmare on Elm Street", where sequels of diminishing quality have diluted the impact of the original, so it's easy to forget how unique and disturbing the Cenobites and their backstory were when initially introduced. "Hellraiser" presents the Cenobites as amoral surveyors of the relationship between sensual pleasure and extreme pain. Their actions are presented as something beyond the human concept of sexuality. The Cenobites are also seemingly beyond the human concept of evil; they inflict pain not in order to do damage, but to provide an extreme experience. Foregrounding these ideas was risky business at the time, even in a horror movie. The subsequent rise of so-called "torture porn" as a horror subgenre may have blunted the edge of this film's gut-wrenching violence, but the philosophical ground it explores remains unique and dangerous territory... and isn't that really what you're looking for in a horror movie? (Tag: Harbinger, Wicked 80s)
Thursday, October 25: Rosemary's Baby
History casts a long shadow on "Rosemary's Baby", the 1968 Roman Polanski film based on Ira Levin's bestselling novel about a nervous young wife's fears that she is going to bear the devil's child. At the time of the film's release, Mr. Polanski was known primarily as a brilliant young director; he hadn't yet become the grief-stricken husband of Manson murder victim Sharon Tate or the international fugitive fleeing from statutory rape allegations. Those notorious incidents can't help but throw a pall over the director's entire body of work, but they're not the only influences weighing on this particular picture.
"Rosemary's Baby" is a film that is freighted with time and place; specifically, late 60s New York City; it's rife with miniskirts, mod haircuts, and modern furniture. Yet "RB" manages to be simultaneously time-bound and timeless: it's both a chilling horror story and a wry social commentary. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her ambitious husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), a struggling young actor, move into an upscale Manhattan apartment building and meet their peculiar neighbors, Minnie (Oscar winner Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). Rosemary is reluctant to be too friendly, but Guy becomes chummy and spends increasing amounts of time with the Castevets, and soon his career takes a surprising upswing. Rosemary later finds that she is pregnant, and she grows suspicious of the overbearing attention the Castevets pay to her condition. Minnie feeds her foul-tasting vitamin shakes, and Rosemary develops a taste for raw meat. And then there's that weird chanting coming from the next-door apartment… Is Rosemary having pregnancy complications, as her doctor tells her, or is she the unwitting pawn in a latter-day deal with the devil?
"Rosemary's Baby" is a great suspense story with supernatural overtones. Mia Farrow is ideal as the frail heroine who's never sure who she can trust; watching her struggle to free herself from the conspiracy that she slowly pieces together is tense and heartwrenching. Author Ira Levin often wrote about the fight to maintain individuality and self-determination against the oppressive mechanism of a larger set of political, religious, or societal beliefs; in addition to "Rosemary's Baby", he also wrote "The Stepford Wives" and "This Perfect Day". Mr. Polanski's work has addressed themes of paranoia ("Repulsion") and conspiracy ("Chinatown"). "Rosemary's Baby" addresses all of these issues adroitly, and it adds a creepy little twist at the end that will definitely stay with you. Brrrr… (Tag: Classic, Auteur)
Friday, October 26: Candyman
From the opening of 1992's "Candyman" you might think you're in for a typical teens-in-peril horror flick. The setup seems so familiar: the babysitter, the visiting boyfriend, the urban legend that they toy with: "Look in the mirror and say 'Candyman' five times and he'll appear, breathing down your neck..." But the twist is that we're hearing a tale relayed to a graduate student, Helen (Virginia Madsen), who's deep into a research project on urban legends. She and fellow student Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are interviewing university undergrads to chase down variations on well-known oral tales: the proverbial alligator in the sewer, the sitter who accidentally microwaves the baby, and... Candyman. The university's night janitors also have a Candyman story to tell, and a chat with the two cleaning ladies leads Helen and Bernadette to Cabrini-Green, a notoriously lawless public housing project on Chicago's north side. Crimes committed there are being attributed to Candyman, and Helen can't resist: she's gotta ask questions. We later learn more about the Candyman legend, from Helen's husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) and another rival academic working in the same field. He claims that Candyman was the son of a slave who fell in love with a plantation owner's daughter and was killed by a lynch mob - and there are good reasons for the colorful nickname. Inspired, Helen returns to Cabrini-Green, and her investigation brings on unexpected and terrifying consequences: kidnapping, murder, a stay in an insane asylum... and a couple of visits from Candyman himself. Is he a sinister spectre, or a figment of Helen's overtaxed imagination?
It almost doesn't matter. He's played by Tony Todd in an instantly-iconic performance that's a heady blend of seduction and menace, and it's impossible to resist his influence. Slowly, Helen is drawn deeper into a vortex of disaster that impacts her family, her friends, and the residents of Cabrini-Green. In the time-honored horror movie tradition, "Candyman" uses its frightening framework as a mechanism for exploring tough social issues. Prior to visiting Cabrini, Bernadette and Helen discuss the compartmentalization of public housing in Chicago, and the use of urban elements to create "barriers" between wealthy and impoverished communities. The film revisits systems of hierarchy and the concept of barriers again and again. There are tensions around race and social class (Candyman and his lover), race and economic class (Helen and her visits to Cabrini), even gender and academic ambition (Helen and Bernadette vs. male faculty members), and every attempt to cross the hierarchical barriers has devastating repercussions. Cabrini-Green is presented as a modern substitute for the traditional haunted house: it's a source of fear and danger for people on the outside who don't know "what goes on in there".
Writer and director Bernard Rose adapted "Candyman" from Clive Barker's source material, and the finished product is both chilling and thought-provoking, with the social commentary adding interesting layers throughout the story. But you don't have to be writing a thesis to enjoy "Candyman". The bottom line is that it's a great scary movie that really delivers on the basics: gorgeous heroine, scary villain, blood... and a hook. What more could you ask for? (Tag: Wild Card)
Saturday, October 27: Fear No Evil
I'm not even going to try to sell you the idea that "Fear No Evil" is a good movie - it's not. So why am I recommending it? Because if you approach this fitfully frightening early 80s oddity with an open mind, it's damned entertaining. There's something compulsively watchable about "FNE", and if you give it a shot you're bound to be overwhelmed by the sheer wackiness of the spectacle before you.
How many weird ideas can be crammed into one movie? Try these on for size: Satan as a surly teenager, a pack of archangels, stigmata, the Sex Pistols, a beachfront crucifixion, a completely unheralded zombie attack, and the worst game of dodgeball in the history of high school gym class. Cap it off with a bombastic closing credits track that wouldn't be out of place on a Ronnie James Dio album, and you've got yourself a VHS classic.
"FNE"'s storyline is actually fairly straightforward: three archangels must pursue and kill Satan, who has come to earth in human form. Two of the angels take the form of an elderly priest (John Holland) and his sister, Margaret (Elizabeth Hoffman); they battle Satan but fail because the third angel is missing. In the melee, the priest is killed. Meanwhle, Satan is reborn; eighteen years later he's creepy highschool senior Andrew (Stefan Arngrim) who wears lots of black, gets top grades effortlessly, and has a crush on good girl Julie (Kathleen Rowe McAllen). Andrew is beset by high school bullies, discovers his identity and powers, and heads to a nearby ruined castle to claim his Satanic legacy. Meanwhile, Julie learns that she is the missing archangel, and she joins Margaret to confront Andrew in his Satanic form. So how do the zombies and the crucifixion figure into the proceedings? I'm really, really not sure. But "FNE" isn't a movie to watch for its linear storyline - it's one to check out for all of the insane stuff going on in the margins. Be warned: you'll want to be on guard for acting that runs the gamut from solid B-list character work to 'My cousin did some theater in high school!', utterly unglamorous casual nudity, and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone.
However, there are some surprisingly slick passages in the film as well. Director Frank LaLoggia, who went on to helm the more disciplined and stylish "Lady in White", is creative and surehanded. A montage conveying Andrew's destructive impact on his family, via exterior shots of their house and bickering voiceovers, is effective. The film's production values are consistently professional, though the makeup and special effects are dated. And Mr. LaLoggia keeps things moving right along, so the film remains on pace despite those periodic detours into weirdness. It's also worth noting both the score and the sountrack for "FNE". The latter is notably melodic, with orchestration that returns periodically to the same themes and brings an element of cohesion to the production, while the former features an energetic selection of late 70s punk and new wave - The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and the B-52s all have their turn.
Kudos to Anchor Bay, who distributed a remastered "FNE" on DVD in the early 00s. The cleaned up transfer looks great - much better than the old VHS version - and they managed to find extras. Extras! Watch the behind the scenes footage for glimpses of scenes that didn't make the final cut - yes, there's stuff they left out of this movie - and to hear Mr. LaLoggia talk about how much he enjoyed shooting "FNE" in his hometown of Rochester, NY. The director's energy is infectious, and it looks like he had almost as much fun shooting the film as you are likely to have watching it. (Tag: Oddity, Wicked 80s)
See you next week!