Bear v. one tough woman in the wilderness. Who'll emerge victorious?
No Telling. 1991. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Larry Fessenden & Beck Underwood.
Starring Miriam Healy-Louie, Stephen Ramsey, David Van Tieghem, Richard Topol, Ashley Arcement, Robert Brady, Susan Doukas, Ward Burlingham, J.J. Clark, Stanley Taub, Francois Lampietti, and John Van Couvering.
Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Larry Fessenden has long been a filmmaker in which I’ve had intense interest. There’s a quality about all his films, no matter how far apart thematically or plot-wise they may be, I’m consistently drawn in by and after every watch, regardless which movie, I usually find his stories on my mind for days.
The first time I saw a Fessenden film was about a decade ago – more like 11 years ago, to be exact. I saw his flick Wendigo on a whim. It was being screened by some group in St. Catharine’s, Ontario where I went to school at the time. There’s a mysterious and eerie air to that movie I couldn’t compare to anything else, at least nothing I’d seen at that point. Not only that, I was going to film school and his filmmaking struck me as such a beautiful, natural process. After seeing more of his work, eventually getting the chance to see Habit, Fessenden became a beacon of light in the indie world. Because his movies, while low budget compared to Hollywood, didn’t feel low budget. He makes use of interesting locations, as well as talented actors to make all the horrific and sometimes completely terrifying aspects of his writing come across.
No Telling is perhaps some of his best work, honestly. Though it isn’t a comment on his skills – he’s always improving, like any true artist. But I find most interesting here the weight and execution of what he’s getting across in this film. Plus, there’s a lovably indie quality to this film which gives it a subtle, special quality. Certainly Fessenden doesn’t appeal to everyone as it is. At the same time, if any of his movies might divide people it is this one – paced with a wonderfully slow burn, there are some intensely gruesome moments in terms of animals; something a portion of people appear to have trouble with. Either way, be prepared: it’s a great non-conventional horror movie.
Geoffrey and Lillian Gaines (Stephen Ramsey/Miriam Healy-Louie) move into a a house during the summer, out in the countryside. Geoffrey is a scientist. He does top-secret work in his barn where a lab is setup. His artist wife Lillian becomes friendly with an activist named Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem), which becomes more frequent as time goes on.
Soon enough, though, Lillian begins to wonder what it is exactly her husband does out in the laboratory. Some days she barely sees him at all. Others, he’s there yet not really, or he sweats uncontrollably, nervous and awkward around any other people. Once Lillian manages to get into the secretive lab, she sees pictures of dissected animals, she finds one of the old traps, and their relationship begins to crumble.
In the same vein as Mary Shelley and her mad Dr. Frankenstein, Fessenden’s No Telling pits man against nature, man against man, and even woman again man.
The basic look of this film is actually incredible. Funny enough, the cinematographer David Shaw actually did nothing after this movie, which is a shame. Though, he did operate Steadicam on a film in’95. It’s crazy because one of the first things I enjoyed about No Telling was the look. The Blu ray comes courtesy of the Larry Fessenden Collection, only recently released; also comes with Habit, Wendigo, and the Last Winter, as well as a ton of extras including short films, music videos and lots of commentary. Really this Blu ray collection is a fucking treasure.
No Telling‘s audio and picture are both unbelievably perfect. The exterior shots are something to behold, then there are great contrasted shots of shadowy goodness inside the barn-laboratory and even at times in the house itself. Again, I’m so amazed Shaw didn’t go on to do more work as cinematographer. Between him and Fessenden there is a wealth of beautifully composed shots, interesting camerawork (angles particularly) and an all around nice style.
Obviously, when you look at this film’s alternate title The Frankenstein Complex, you can easily see – even without doing so – there are roots of this story growing out of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein. Lots of interesting things happening in this movie, courtesy of the tight screenplay from Fessenden and Beck Underwood. Naturally, this comes out from the young doctor and his experiments. However, the movie takes it further into the idea of man playing god using animals as his subject. You can clearly see how Fessenden feels about animal experimentation; at the same time, he makes a good point for the side of the scientist, as well. As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple particularly savage shots where Geoffrey (Ramsey) is in his barn-lab doing work that might get touchy for anyone sensitive seeing animals in horror movies. But this only serves to create a weird character in Geoffrey, the heinous doctor working out in the isolated farmlands on who knows what sort of mental medical experiments.
The whole film is very heavy in theme. We watch this doctor and his wife sort of spiral into a descent towards a place where life is dark and dangerous. To compliment such darkness, again it’s the camerawork and the style of Fessenden which make it all compelling. One specific shot I can’t stop thinking of comes after Geoffrey puts a few small metal traps out to catch animals around the property – as Lillian is upstairs, the snap of a trap comes in the distance and then a red filter takes over the visuals, slowly cutting and cutting, editing towards shots of a fox (or something similar) baring its teeth, no doubt caught in the trap’s jaws. Very, very effective and such a neat moment. I was caught off-guard, in such a perfect sense. Made my eyes widen and excited me with all its horror. This is only one of the awesome sequences out of this fascinating film.
This is one of my favourite Larry Fessenden films. I’ve seen them all now, especially since getting this collection it’s been easy. 4.5 out of 5 stars, none less. No Telling has a ton of spooky horror, but it isn’t conventional like jumpy stuff. Nor is there a lot of the typical sort of reliance on genre tropes. What Fessenden does here is a create a unique and intensely modern story using Mary Shelley as a very basic framework. Too many seem to pass this off as a mere retelling of Frankenstein. It is so much more. Just take a chance and watch this excellent little indie horror. It will compel and disturb you and surprise you even.
Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers. 1989. Directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard. Screenplay by Shem Bitterman/Dominique Othenin-Girard/Michael Jacobs.
Starring Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, Beau Starr, Jeffrey Landman, Tamara Glynn, Donald L. Shanks, Jonathan Chapin, Matthew Walker, Wendy Foxworth, Betty Carvalho, Troy Evans and Frankie Como. Magnum Pictures Inc./The Return of Myers/Trancas International Films. Rated R. 96 minutes.
The Halloween series gets worse after the 4th installment, even lots of people might say that was a bust. Me, I enjoyed it. Starting with this film, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, the brutal psychopath reality of Myers himself began to be diluted. Though I love the connection between Michael and his niece Jamie, the writers tried to go too far into the supernatural aspect of Myers – he always had a sort of inhuman, or superhuman quality about him, but it was best left a mystery like in the original; he was pure evil.
With this sequel, the series starts on a long descent into obscurity. Though, I did love the remake and partly enjoyed its sequel from Rob Zombie, even if many hated it and loathe him for even touching Halloween. But as far as the original series itself goes, after this one it gets pretty bad, embarrassing almost. This movie doesn’t have full coherence at its side. That being said, I do love the suspense and tension still present in Michael’s character, his lurking and his casual sneak behind the scenes unnoticed. And it’s always nice to see Dr. Loomis, no matter how cranky a bastard he may be after all these years hunting evil.
One year following the events of Halloween IV, Michael Myers (Donald L. Shanks) has survived the shootings of the previous year’s Halloween night. Little Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) has gone mute after attacking her own stepmother. She’s confined to a children’s hospital, treated for her psychological trauma. It becomes apparent to Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) that Jamie is exhibiting a type of connection, a mental link with her uncle Michael. As the psychotic slasher kills his way back to try and finally kill his niece, Loomis and the other Haddonfield residents try to band together in order to safeguard the lives of those who matter most from walking evil.
But as he’s so often proved before, nothing seems a match for Michael Myers. He is the living, breathing, walking presence of death. He will have what he wants.
Michael Myers is a feral, savage beast. He coldly kills the man who looked after him once collapsing after coming out of the river. Not that I expected any less, but still – cold blooded. Starting with the previous film, Halloween IV, Michael already started to exhibit pretty harsh, violent strength. From the beginning with Carpenter he was always an unnaturally strong slasher, but in the last movie the savagery of his kills began amping up. There was already the thumb through a guy’s forehead. Here, it isn’t only the intensity of the kills themselves, there’s an even worse sense of Michael’s vicious nature coming out. He’s becoming a worse evil than ever imagined, if that’s entirely possible. So, one of the positive things I can say about this sequel is the fact Michael sort of changes, at least in a slight sense, as a horror movie slasher. Okay – it’s not huge literary character development. Could be worse, though.
Then there are some excellent little sequences full of fear. For instance, when Jamie (Harris) is running through the hospital, thinking uncle Michael is right on her tail and trying to kill her, there’s a good deal of suspense and the heart gets pumping. Of course she’s only imagining it, and the big jump comes as you almost expect Michael to be there. Instead it’s a maintenance man, a nurse behind him, each looking for Jamie. I thought that was a solid scene, subverted expectations.
Another scene I liked is when Tina (Wendy Foxworth) goes out to the car, expecting her boyfriend Mikey (Jonathan Chapin), only unbeknownst to her it’s actually Mikey Myers in the mask she bought – it was super tense, I honestly didn’t know how the scene was going to go and I constantly feared for Tina’s life, every step of the way. Really effective few moments, even tied up with Jamie and her strange psychic connection with Michael, because there are moments cutting to and from Jamie/Tina which make it all the more nervous for the audience.
On top of that, I do like the Thorn Cult people prowling around. Adds something extra. While I’m not a fan of the supernatural-ish angle happening, their presence is definitely creepy. Seeing one of them walk out after Loomis heads downstairs in the old Myers house, another passes out onto the street in another shot between the Jamie/Tina ordeal – I find it dark and foreboding. I guess the positive aspect of this, what I’m trying to get at is, that if Myers and his story has to be continued with these sequels, it’s at least interesting the writers tried to conjure up a backstory with more depth than originally intended. Not saying it’s better than just the faceless slasher, the mysterious psychopath. But if it’s got to be kept going, at least make it interesting and a little fresh.
An important aspect of this movie is the fact Danielle Harris was a great actress at such a young age. Even with the silliness of the psychic link between her character and Michael, she did a wonderful job. The fact Jamie was mute for the first half of the film made for some interesting acting, which I enjoy to the fullest. She brings across the struggling, traumatized little girl in Jamie so well. I still find Harris to be a quality actress, even a good director now, even if the films she acts in aren’t always the best. At an early age, Harris was able to prove herself and add something interesting to Halloween V in a slightly bland sequel.
Aside from Harris’ performance and the handful of creepy scenes, there’s not a whole lot else going on. The kills are decent here and that gives the movie something else to rely on. Most of the acting holds up, but it’s really Harris and Donald Pleasence – of course – who hold up that end of the bargain. If the writers hadn’t leaned into the psychic connection it may have been better: the whole cult thing was cool, it just should’ve been turned into something different other than what it later became in further sequels; I always imagined it cool if a cult began to worship Michael instead of what started to happen after this movie. I love all the Jamie-Michael stuff, but it wasn’t best served being turned into a supernatural thriller style plot device.
I can’t rate this Halloween installment any lower than 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is nowhere near any of the best this series has to offer. Still, though, I think there are some good moments of suspense, lots of tense scenes. Instead of jump scares this film relies on a nice performance from Danielle Harris, the return of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, as well as a slow pace. If the story were better I could’ve definitely given this a half star (or more) extra. However, the plot in this movie begins to make the series get silly and bad as the sequels push on. Either way I don’t feel this movie deserves the hate it gets, nor is it a masterpiece. It’s just a fun sequel despite its flaws.
The House by the Cemetery. 1981. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Screenplay by Lucio Fulci/Giorgio Mariuzzo/Dardano Sacchetti, from a story by Elisa Livia Briganti.
Starring Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Anioa Pieroni, Giovannia Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava, Daniela Dora, Gianpaolo Saccarola and Carlo De Mejo. Fulvia Film. Rated R. 87 minutes.
I came to Lucio Fulci about ten years ago, after seeing City of the Living Dead. His classic look, the effects, an insanely nasty sense of style – how could I not enjoy his films? After that one, I found The Beyond, which is tied with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin as my favourite of his work. So I made my way through everything by him I could find. Though his movies aren’t perfect, I find them perfect for me, for horror. They’re not full of grand metaphor, they aren’t even particularly complex in plot. What Fulci offers is a visually pleasing aesthetic, crossed with the brutal qualities of his own personal horror movie madness.
The House by the Cemetery isn’t his best, though, it’s nowhere near his worst. While many might have you believe it’s overrated, or that it’s “typical Fulci”, I say that’s nonsense. Especially those who think it’s “typical” of him – what’s wrong with typical Fulci? He’s a classic horror filmmaker, his style is all his own. Added to that, there are always solid gore effects, you can count on that. This film has all the earmarks of Fulci with a bit of inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and other sources.
Essentially, this is Fulci’s version of the haunted house horror.
Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco/Catriona MacColl), along with their young boy Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move into a home belonging to a colleague of Norman’s who committed suicide; he plans on researching the house itself, as well as the other previous owners. Soon enough, Bob sees a young girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina), but only he can see her. She tries to warn him of the danger in the house. No one will believe him, certainly not his mother. Eventually a woman comes to take the position of babysitter for Bob – Ann (Ania Pieroni) shows up out of nowhere for the job.
Things slowly get scarier in the old house, as Norma and Lucy discover a Dr. Freudstein once lived in their new home, around the turn of the century. He was a Victorian era doctor who performed illegal surgeries and experiments. This leads to more gruesome discoveries around the property, as the past comes alive and tears its way into the present.
When the movie’s filmed in English, yet still dubbed in post-production for some odd reason, you can’t expect it to be an outright masterpiece. Can you? No. So, when you watch The House by the Cemetery I’m not saying you’ll be blown away by all the technical aspects. Nor am I saying the story makes perfect and complete sense. Not in the slightest. What I am saying is that Fulci manages to do excitingly eerie things with atmosphere, as well as the fact he does his best to include some proper gore to wet the whistle of all those gore hounds out there.
My favourite part of this film is that atmosphere. The overall tone is grim. There’s something common to Fulci, I think. Every movie feels hopeless, not an ounce of actual happiness and figurative light manages to make its way into these stories he tells. Which is perfect for horror, and why I’m always inclined to enjoy so many of his films. The House by the Cemetery has the pretense of having those happier moments in the beginning, but the immediacy in Fulci’s presentation of the horror going on inside the house sets the tone quickly. It reminds me of how George Romero starts Day of the Dead with that neat, brief little dream sequence; sets us on edge from the start, almost like a visual manifesto. From there, Fulci works on us with his imagery alongside an unusual and exciting score from Walter Rizzati. The aesthetic of the film is, again, very Fulci.
I mean, even the scene where Norman (Paolo Malco) gets attacked by a bat becomes something intensely horrific. It latches onto his hand for what seems like ages. Finally, after a tough wrestle with it as everyone watches in horror, Norman stabs the things, blood pumping everywhere. The mark it leaves is savage. Such a normal event like finding a bat in the basement – something which happens plenty to people around the world – transforms into the stuff of nightmares. Such is the power of Fulci. He doesn’t have to be doing anything extraordinary in terms of plot or story in order to make things interesting, or in this case pretty nasty.
I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the story, like the plot is completely nonsensical. Not sure why so many complaints. There’s not much going on here to really need to comprehend. It’s a haunted house style horror movie, there are reanimated corpses in the house – chaos and supernatural terror ensue. What’s so tough to get? Not saying that everything is tied up into neat little packages and the screenplay rounds off every edge it fashions. But seriously – I don’t get the labels of incoherent other reviews have put out there. Does not make sense. There’s a surreal nature to this creepy house of Fulci’s, I feel The House by the Cemetery is like a fever dream full of haunting images. As I said earlier, this is like the past meets the present. The visceral entities of the house’s past come alive to keep taking lives, to keep Dr. Freudstein in business and corpses for experimentation, surely. Is that not the whole point? Just can’t get my head around why people feel the need to criticize Fulci here when the movie isn’t trying to be anything more than it is: a creepfest with nasty kills and a grim tone.
Despite all my love for this Lucio Fulci film, I do find a lot of the acting – aside from Catriona MacColl who is always fabulous – pretty damn bothersome, and tiring most of the time. Regardless, I still say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star horror movie. It’s got a nice dose of gore, the typically awesome and gnarly horror expected of Fulci. Not only that, the story is creepy enough to keep things going; no matter what people say about its supposed incoherence. Mainly, it’s just not an overly complex plot or anything. It has the goods to satisfy a haunted house movie craving, on top of that the blood and vicious bits will keep the hounds at bay. Not Fulci’s top horror, but like I said it’s light years away from being the worst. This is a good flick for Halloween and it’s a generally good one to take in if you’re getting into Fulci, or if you’re into him and have yet to see it because of Negative Nancies and Davie Downers saying this is overrated, or yadda yadda whatever else they say. Judge for yourself! Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hear other perspectives, as long as you’re civil – then this Dude abides.
The Haunting. 1963. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Nelson Gidding; based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn. Argyle Enterprises. Rated G. 112 minutes (Black & White).
Whatever the equivalent of a Renaissance Man in film, it certainly was Robert Wise. He crossed over genres and did so many incredible movies in the span of his career that it’s almost not even sensible. Not nowadays, even with lots of great filmmakers popping out here and there.
Think about it – The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That’s not even all of them, just the good ones (except for the first Star Trek).
Wise has that classic sensibility about his filmmaking. Here, he uses such beautifully constructed angles and lighting, shadow, to create a haunting feeling. His ability to put us in the perspective of a character is uncanny. The Haunting is not just a ghost story, nor is it simply a typical haunted house horror movie. Wise constructs a supernatural type film around very psychological premises. Working off the excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the screenplay by Nelson Gidding is woven finely and Wise makes it something intimate, as well as very universal. Though we spend so much time getting into the head of one particular lead character, the story and its trappings draw on a widely held fear – one that comes out of wondering what lies beyond the veil of death.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) plans on conducting experiments concerning ghostly entities. He is able to secure the use of Hill House: a legendary home built by Hugh Crain (Howard Lang) for his wife, though now supposedly haunted after he was plagued by the deaths of his wives.
Markway invites several people to come to the house, all in the name of studying fear specifically. Two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), along with a young man named Luke (Russ Tamblyn) come to Hill House in order for Markway to start experimenting. However, not long after her arrival Eleanor starts to lose her grip on reality. Not too long and everything begins to get more terrifying, not just for Eleanor but for every living person who comes into contact with Hill House. No telling if any of them will make it out of its walls alive.
I don’t care what anyone says, some of the old school film techniques are the best. For instance, just the way Wise creates a disorienting feeling with simple methods instead of using any elaborate effects is part of The Haunting‘s charm. Early on, after Eleanor reaches the house and everyone’s settling in, she has a sort of panic attack and the camera dips, giving us an inverted look at her as she screams out. It’s such a deceptively simple shot, but god damn if it doesn’t work proper. Even so far as very quick angles and switches of point-of-view, which Wise executes flawlessly. Particularly there’s a scene where Eleanor goes back to her room alone, lying on the bed, then the camera moves from above her looking down to a shot next to the bed, no edit. Such a smooth switch and it just has a nice look. Lots of modern horror is so concerned with pushing a scare on you and throwing it in your face. Wise lets a lot of the psychological effects of the noises, the ghostly whispers (and so on) really sit with you and he twists and turns things about as you’re sinking in it. Again, it’s the fact we’re so often thrown into Eleanor’s perspective I find the film is so creepy. You eventually get a sense of something terrifying happening, even in the times Eleanor is with someone else and the ghostly presence is banging a door or shaking something – it still feels very much like we’re riding along with her specifically. I enjoy all the characters, it’s simply the way the story is told and how Wise is able to give us such a close, intimate feeling of seeing things through her eyes.
So much of the psycho-horror comes out of the innovative filming and creative editing, such a spooky overall product. Wise deliberately wanted to throw people off, so there are cuts where characters walk through a door on the right only to enter through the left of the screen, thereby confusing any sense of understanding the layout of Hill House (so remember this people when you think about Kubrick’s The Shining). I love that because it adds another purposefully, and awesomely, eerie sense of disorientation.
One of my favourite moments in terms of technique is the staircase. We get that neat shot, strangely creepy, where the camera seems to zoom down through the stairs. As per commentary on The Haunting Blu ray, this was achieved by basically using the staircase as a dolly and sending the camera down slowly, then once in reverse the effect came out weird and highly effective. Just like another shot where Eleanor is alone, thinking to herself and letting the thoughts of dead Mrs. Crain get in her head, then the camera sort of zooms down at her from high above, her wide and screaming mouth open – then a quick cut to Dr. Markway grabbing hold so she doesn’t fall off the balcony. This quick bit is so unsettling, it draws you closer and closer towards Eleanor’s mindset.
The performances are all pretty top notch, classy style acting overall. Of course it’s Julie Harris as Eleanor who steals the show. Without her ability to portray such a damaged, fragile woman, the plot wouldn’t have been able to take hold. Not only does Wise put us in her shoes visually, her skills as an actor take us the next leap forward. She’s very quiet and subtle at moments, then others time there’s a fire inside her, in her eyes, and it rises up quickly. Harris has wonderful range and displays it, fine-tuned here.
Further than that, this movie had a great depiction of a lesbian woman for 1963. Usually there’d be a foolishly stereotypical version of a gay woman in other big films. Instead, Theodora (played by Claire Bloom) comes off elegant, feminine and not someone trying to lure the only other woman around into a sexual encounter – funny enough, the 1999 remake sort of retracted all that and made her into a hound for pussy, but whatever, that movie was awful. This one, though, it really did good things for the character. That’s just another example of a nice addition to the source material. Jackson is very, very present throughout this adaptation. But Gidding and Wise have their hands in some places where it counts, including Theodora’s character and the in-depth focus on Eleanor and her mental state.
If there were ever a quintessential haunted house-style horror movie, it is absolutely Robert Wise’s The Haunting. 5 stars, hands down. I can never see this movie enough. It’s especially good for Halloween, but every day is good for horror. This will sink in if you let it. Too many people today are getting desensitized by gore and blood. But that is not the epitome of horror. The real creepy stuff, the genuinely unsettling horror movies, they’re the ones that slowly climb into your brain and don’t let go. They’re the things made up of well crafted writing, careful direction – both in terms of cinematography, editing, and also regarding the design aspects of the house, the look of it all. The Haunting has every bit of this, and more. You need to experience this Wise masterpiece in Blu ray, it will blow your mind. Excellent horror and one hell of a classic.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite filmmaker. For me, and for many, there are tons of great directors out there. Especially when you consider the different genres. I often have a hard time saying I like one director – who happens to stick with a certain genre – over another, simply because I feel particular directors are best within certain genres. Still there are a handful of them I’d place at the top of my personal list.
One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
At an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.
ASYLUM BLACKOUT is a tense and atmospheric horror-thriller about a group of workers trapped inside an asylum when the lights go off, where they're picked off one by one.
The Creeper a.k.a Rituals. 1977. Directed by Peter Carter. Screenplay by Ian Sutherland.
Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke, Murray Westgate, Jack Creley, and Michael Zenon. American Pop Classics. Rated R. 100 minutes.
This 1977 horror-thriller, The Creeper a.k.a Rituals, is one I’ve heard about for about for well over a decade now, almost two. Horror fanatic since the age of twelve, when I first discovered Hal Holbrook outside of those interests I soon came to discover he’d been in an early slasher type film. So sticking that in the back of my head, at the time with no real way to see the movie since it wasn’t at my local video store, I hoped someday I’d be able to finally see it. Somehow. Some way.
Well recently I tracked down a digitally remastered copy from American Pop Classics, which was reasonably priced and pretty decent looking for such a rare cult horror flick. This one came out on the verge of slasher horror becoming super popular, due to John Carpenter. It wasn’t the first, with classics such as Black Christmas coming out in 1974, Psycho having been released seventeen years prior. But still, I think The Creeper did some interesting things. This movie might not have hit it big, it didn’t at all from what I gather, don’t let that sway you. There’s a good bit of backwoods horror here and most certainly anyone who has seen it will find themselves influenced by its creepy qualities.
A group of doctors get together in the Canadian wilderness. They’re dropped off by plane out to some remote part of the forest. The men head to a place called “The Cauldron of the Moon” by Aboriginal peoples. Hiking through all sorts of terrain, the doctor friends camp for a while. However, once they’re shoes go missing, except for one man, things start to get scary.
The one with his shoes left decides to walk out for help. It’s after he leaves when the others discover something disturbing is happening in those woods. A deer head appears outside their camp, then the terror truly begins.
There’s a bleak atmosphere from the beginning of The Creeper. Everything is isolated, so far up into the backwoods. Even further, director Peter Carter captures the desolate feeling with a ton of great wide shots; the forest and the mountains together swallow up each of the characters. There are so many beautiful scenes. Even when one of the doctors ends up with his decapitated head on a pike, and another of them throws it down the mountain in anger, there’s this sweeping shot that goes over Hal Holbrook’s head as the head/stick goes flying; strange for it to be a beautiful shot, but it certainly is that.
Another thing I think helped overall is that this screenplay wasn’t the typical slasher horror writing either. Perhaps because it was one of the earliest slashers, a prototype, it didn’t fall for all the exact similar things later slashers made into the genre tropes. Better than that, the characters themselves were decently developed. There were a few points where I thought the development was subtle, things didn’t get spelled out obviously right in front of us; for instance, a conversation around the fire has two of the doctors revealing bits and pieces of their lives before the events of the film, sort of filling in gaps to who they are as people. A lot of modern slashers try to jam pack loads of exposition into their screenplays. Here, there’s enough to hook us, but also leaves some things to our imagination. Part of The Creeper‘s charm is, evidently, the way it sort of creeps on you. Between the isolation, the wide and desolate shots, as well as the characterization, everything in the film will grow and fester in you until the events start to get real terrifying.
The moments of slasher horror, so to speak, are pretty damn effective. From the beginning, when the deer head shows up, things are nasty enough. Solely because of the malicious intent. But things only get worse and worse. The decapitation, as I mentioned. Afterwards, one of the doctors ends up tied to a a stake and lit on fire. There are several truly gruesome aspects to the film.
I think it’s the very finale I found most jarring. There a two instances where the sound design uses an echo, which was interesting. It worked and had a strange effect. It’s unsettling, yet I can’t say exactly why. Sort of amplified the emotions happening at the time, almost as if the echoes were in the characters’ own heads.
Ultimately, what makes so much of The Creeper work in terms of its outright horror is the solid acting from Holbrook. He really has great skills. Even when the rest of the acting isn’t all perfect, Holbrook keeps us grounded and his intensity, the anxiety he gives us through his character, all the tension in him, it helps the horror and terror of the plot become more plausible, it feels more real. In particular, there’s a scene where Harry (Holbrook) discovers a deep cut around his femoral artery, and he stops for a moment, regrouping, as his friend is tied to the stake; the way Harry is calm compared to the other man, the demeanour he displays, this gives us such an excellent impression of this man’s character. I imagine Harry as a good doctor, someone who doesn’t allow the pressure to bear down on him. These few moments were great in this respect. Not only that, the entire sequence following after is horrific and Holbrook makes it come off spot on.
The final shot of Harry sitting on the highway was amazing – panning back behind him, the open road ahead, such a fitting way to end things after all the chaos. Everything becomes sunny, open, beautiful, as opposed to the darkness and horror in the forest. Love this finish.
While there are some aspects which could’ve been improved upon, The Creeper deserves a 4 out of 5 star rating. I truly feel this is a good slasher, especially considering this came a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween. With a good lead actor to hold things in place, some nice writing and very effectively creepy effects at key moments, this is a solid cult classic. It’s tough to find and the quality of the DVD I found isn’t even immaculate, nowhere near. But you’ll be surprised. This is a very subtle and low budget film, though, its merits are evident once you get through the film. For a rare movie, I’m pleased to have even gotten a copy. Check this out if you’re ever so lucky. You’ll find a nice dose of slasher horror in an unusual package.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. 2006. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Screenplay by Sheldon Turner; from a story by Sheldon Turner & David J. Schow.
Starring Jordana Brewster, Taylor Handley, Diora Baird, Matt Bomer, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, Lee Tergesen, Terrence Evans, Kathy Lamkin, Mariette Marich, and Lew Temple.
Rated 18A. 91 minutes.
As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I will always consider The Texas Chain Saw Massacre one of the scariest films of all time. That original Tobe Hooper movie is just terrifying to me. It’s fine if others don’t agree, but something about that horror movie absolutely gets to me right at my core. The whole family and Leatherface himself, they’re creepy. Almost the definition of macabre. Plus, there’s the fact Leatherface is VERY loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein, whom I’ve read a ton about. So I think my own interests play into part of why the movie scares me so deeply.
I’m not a fan of the 2003 remake, but honestly I do dig Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. It is nowhere near being a perfect movie, however, I found it a hell of a lot scarier than the remake to which this is a prequel. While there’s still a little of that flashiness from the 2003 film which I complained of in my recent review. Luckily for this movie, it doesn’t try to focus too much on the sexualized females as that one, either. I’m not saying there isn’t any seemingly obligatory sexualization from serial culprits Platinum Dunes – there are bits of half nudity and such, focus on the gleaming wet bodies of young people – but compared to the remake in 2003 it is nowhere near as foolish in that sense.
What I do like is a peek into the history of Leatherface, here named Thomas “Tommy” Hewitt, and his adopted family. This is a nasty bit of horror, that’s for sure. While there are some problems, I think it’s a more interesting movie than the one to which this acts as a prequel, and the script is much better, as well.
I found the whole Vietnam War angle pretty intriguing. Brothers Eric (Matt Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley) have an intense dynamic, as the former – the oldest – clearly cares about his country, in the sense he’s willing to go back over after already clearly experiencing horrors his first time. On the other hand, younger brother Dean burns up his draft card, knowing the post traumatic stress his brother suffers having already served in the army over in Vietnam. So I like how they clash, as well as the fact the climax of their situation comes right at the biggest moment of tension when a biker is chasing them down, gun drawn, and they end up smashing into a cow crossing over the road.
Furthermore, it plays a bit into the brothers’ confrontation with Charlie Hewitt (R. Lee Ermey), a.k.a Sheriff Hoyt after he killed the last bit of law enforcement in their tiny, dying Texas town. When he finds the burned draft card, things get super intense.
What I love about this one, as opposed to the 2003 remake, is that the four main characters on the road trip kicking everything into gear feel genuine and real. There’s still a bit of that ‘sex sells’ nonsense here like the previous movie, a couple beer ad-like moments. But overall I feel we get to know and care for these characters, as opposed to the 2003 film where it’s just a bunch of sweat glistened young people who have little to no personality, and the whole tired pot angle played into things making it worse. Here, I honestly feel – for all its flawed bits – Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning gave us a nice dose of character, both in terms of the victims and the Hewitt family themselves, a.k.a the bad guys.
Almost more than Leatherface, I really wanted to see more about Sheriff Hoyt after the first remake in 2003. Most of that movie is pretty mediocre to crap, but R. Lee Ermey does such a terrifyingly fantastic job playing the character he drew me in. Then, of course, with this sequel to the remake we’re finding out deeper, even darker secrets about Hoyt. So while I love Leatherface, Hoyt – or Charlie, whatever you want to call him – is a huge part of the interest I have here. To my mind, things get way more disturbing after the opening events of this film, once we find out what Hoyt is really all about. Watching his mental state sort of go from ‘dealing with things’ to ‘scorched earth’ is pretty chilling.
Several parts of the screenplay make this Texas Chainsaw entry better than others. First, I like how there’s an inclusion of different themes from war – what people will do in one while they’re fighting, or what they’ll resort to in situations simply to survive (which further leads into the cannibalism aspect of the story) – to staying true to one’s roots and holding on to one’s culture, to the bonds people people whether blood and family or not. Between all those elements there are so many things happening. Not a groundbreaking work of art, this screenplay, but I think compared to its predecessor this movie has great stuff going on. Because ultimately, we know what’s going to happen – this is a prequel, we get that part. So the writers did a few neat things in order to make the journey more exciting.
Secondly, most of the Texas Chainsaw films – good or not – tend to see one group of people fall into the trap, ending up at Chez Leatherface and then they’re killed. Part of why I enjoy this movie as much as I do is because we see the brother duo and their girlfriends have an altercation with bikers, leading to a crash and that leads into the meeting with Sheriff Hoyt. All the while, this allows for the story to flesh out the backstory of Tommy Hewitt and his adopted family. I’ve always found there was a fun mixture in the plot, which allows for interesting developments – leading to prequel bits filling up/bridging the gaps to the previous remake – and some wild characters + situations.
This is a 3.5 out of 5 star horror film, for me. It could’ve definitely improved on a few things, mainly losing the glossy 21st century remake look so apparent in many Platinum Dunes productions. However, I can honestly say this is much better and more worthy of your time than the 2003 remake. The acting is better, the characters are more developed and less hateable, as well as the fact you’ll find it cool to watch how things evolved from Leatherface’s meager beginnings to where he horrifically stands now. You can do far worse in terms of remakes, though, it still could’ve done Leatherface and the legacy of Tobe Hooper more justice. But I’ll take what I can when it comes to prequels. I love them, they just don’t turn out the best all the time. This one is good enough to make me recommend it to those wanting more TCM.
Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. Directed & Written by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, and Roger Casamajor. Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Telecinco/OMM. Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Guillermo del Toro has one of the most consistently fascinating minds in film today. Ever since I saw his feature film debut Cronos – a unique take on vampire mythology – I knew he’d go on to do a lot more great work. Even the 1997 Mimic was fun, though marred by studio interference and the fact del Toro’s father was kidnapped during that time. He went on to do another fascinatingly original type of ghost story with The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, which really came back to his exciting from the first feature. Afterwards, he added a good entry to the Blade franchise with its second installment and then did a funny, engaging adaptation of the Hellboy comic in 2004.
Pan’s Labyrinth is most certainly one of del Toro’s best works to date. It is highly original, while at the same time having its roots in old folklore, fairy tales and fantastical stories such as Alice in Wonderland. Even further, there is a darkness which is present in other fantasy storytelling but becomes pronounced through del Toro as a writer and as director. Perhaps the best part of this film is how he so elegantly weaves dark fantasy through the real life drama at the heart of the story, creating a perfect hybrid between the main character’s reality and her dreamworld.
During 1944, the post-Spanish Civil War phase has begun. Although there are rebel troops still fighting in the mountainside against the Falangist army troops. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) orders his wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) brought to live in a country mill within the forest. At first, Ofelia finds it hard to deal with her new life as the daughter of Vidal, whose fascist tendencies do not stop at his soldiers; rather his family is just as much a part of his rule as anything or anyone else.
Once a strange faun draws Ofelia into the labyrinth in the courtyard of the mill, she discovers a whole other magical world existing right under the surface of reality. When the faun tells Ofelia she is actually Princess Moanna, she is given several tasks to complete before the next full moon, which leads her into the other world adjacent to our own. However, it may not be enough for her to escape the hardships of the tragic reality in which she finds herself living with Vidal.
It’s no wonder Pan’s Labyrinth won Academy Awards – three of them. There is such an incredibly craftsmanship about the entire film. Certainly when you look at all the individual aspects, it’s hard to imagine anybody hating this film; sure, you can not be totally into it, but I’ll be damned to hell if you can’t admire this movie for all its efforts.
First, there’s the impeccable cinematography of Guillermo Navarro. Anyone who has read my blog before knows I’m a fan of Navarro. I knew him from his work with del Toro first and foremost. Though, when he directed a couple episodes of NBC’s Hannibal I was truly impressed – those episodes were titled “Coquilles“, “Trou Normand“, and “Rôti“. He captures the light and the dark in equal measures, the latter coming out beautifully in terms of shadow particularly. I think, above all, he and del Toro have very similar sensibilities, which helps in this case because though the story is awesome what I love most is the film’s look. What I imagine is that del Toro and Navarro, as director and cinematographer respectively, came together to find the visual presence of the film; effectively forming a dual director of photography. While del Toro no doubt had an entire aesthetic in mind, I can tell Navarro’s touch lands heavily on Pan’s Labyrinth because of watching his own directing on Hannibal, as well as in the two episodes of Narcos he helmed.
Almost better than the cinematography itself is the film’s intensely detailed art direction. From the look of the old mill, to the forest locations and the darkly fantastical settings inside the labyrinth with the Pale Man and Pan, there are too many different places where the art direction is on the level of a masterpiece. There’s such an effortless feel to the way del Toro and his team take us back to the mid-1940s in Spain. All the while, you know this movie took a ton of work to complete, it’s actually mind boggling at times when I think of it. Every location you see in Pan’s Labyrinth looks like it’s been pulled straight from a picture.
To make it all the more magical, the makeup in this film is just downright jaw dropping. The pinnacle, of course, has to be Vidal’s knife wound through the cheek. Absolutely raw and looks so natural! Its look is something out of a horror film and I found the makeup had a super visceral effect. I’m not normally a cringing sort – I watch a ridiculous amount of horror – however, the part when Vidal patches himself up, sewing the wound, then drinks a shot of liquor: it got me. But in the right sort of way. This part is only one amazing instance of excellent makeup work. Pan and the other creatures have such an innovative design about them, it’s some of the better makeup effects in fantasy over the past 20 years. Hands down. Without all these elements together, the fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth wouldn’t juxtapose well enough with the reality-based drama in its script. The look – in cinematography, design and direction – is perfectly dark and simultaneously vibrant. Add to that the painstakingly created makeup/effects and del Toro’s genius comes alive – although he wrote the script and obviously came up with a massive amount of stuff to throw into its story, as evidenced by the plentiful notes and sketches he creates over the course of every production, such a vision does require an entire team able/willing to go the extra mile to make this what it was meant to be.
There’s no argument on my part, Guillermo del Toro has several masterpieces under his belt and Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception: a 5 star film, from start to finish. The screenplay itself is enough to warrant a full rating. With all the different and various elements of this film coming together, working in favour of one another, del Toro’s dark fairy tale is something you might imagine coming out of the great literature from history. Honestly, I truly believe if del Toro had written this as a novel it would’ve been just as well received and perhaps could’ve gone on to rank among some of the big works of fantasy in the literary world. That being said I’m glad he chose to make this as a film. The visual qualities added to the masterful storytelling of del Toro made this into one of the great fantasy epics that will ever be in cinematic history. If I’m alive 50 years from now I’ll still be raving, and hopefully my eyesight will have lasted me until then; hell, even if I’m blind I’ll still ask someone to throw this on so I can listen to its beautiful music, all the sweet sounding Spanish words and the overall magical sound design. If you’ve not seen this one, please, do yourself a huge favour and take this in soon. It’s a pleasure of a movie even with its bits of creepiness and tragedy.
* As of writing, this title is available on Canadian Netflix.*
Day of the Dead. 1985. Directed & Written by George A. Romero.
Starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard, Gary Howard Klar, Ralph Marrero, John Amplas, Phillip G. Kellams, Taso N. Stavrakis, and Greg Nicotero. United Film Distribution Company (UFDC)/A Laurel Production/Dead Films Inc./Laurel-Day Inc. Rated R. 96 minutes.
For me personally, though I love each of them and think they’re masterpieces of horror, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead is my favourite of his first three major zombie films. The post-apocalyptic feel here is even stronger than in the previous Dawn of the Dead and I can’t get enough of it.
Romero dives into more sociopolitical issues again here, as he did with the other two Dead movies. This screenplay deals with the head-butting elements of science and military in a world ravaged by the zombie virus. Most of all, though, this movie really gets down to the nitty gritty, raw side of humanity – what we, as a species, would devolve into, regressing back to a primitive state once the zombie apocalypse begins. Through the military vs. scientist dilemma throughout Day of the Dead, this microcosm of the post-virus landscape in a bunker under the ground, we’re able to see how far humans will go, or better yet how far they can fall. Even further than that, as the good Dr. Logan says “they are us“: Romero tries to introduce a clear example of how zombies are still human, merely men and women reduced to a primitive, less active and intelligent state. So what interests me most throughout this fascinating zombie film is how the line between man/womankind and our primitive animalistic self seems to only be a thin one, a light veneer barely separating the two states.
Romero knows us, better than we’d like to admit.
When zombies have overrun the world, a dozen people – government scientists and military – live in a bunker below the earth. The scientists, led by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) and Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), attempt to try and figure out how to battle the zombie virus itself. Although, Logan has some different and perhaps unorthodox ideas about the way to experiment in such things. The soldiers, now under command of Captain Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) – a hotheaded and equally stubborn, violent man – do not approve of what the doctors are doing.
After the isolation of being underground starts to emotionally and mentally unhinge Private Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr), the outside world of the living dead manages to break through, coming down below to meet the still-living.
And then, on that day, hell breaks loose.
The opening scene, to me, is one of the things I’ve always loved and found memorable about Day of the Dead. Not sure why, I suppose because there’s a creepy dream-like quality about it which sets the tone: this is going to be a nightmare. And it is, in the absolute correct sense of the word, in the right way a horror film ought to be a nightmarish experience.
Truly, this film is a haunting zombie horror. In my opinion the special makeup effects are best here. Savini gives us amazing gore to soak up. Greatest of all comes quickly, after we’re introduced to the man lovingly referred to as Dr. Frankenstein by the other scientists and the military men, Dr. Logan: a zombie on one of the operating tables leans over, ripping a strap from its arm, and reaching out its guts and innards fall out of the stomach’s cavity onto the floor, slopping in its own mess. Nasty bit! Even better, the dream imagery comes back – like the beginning scene – except much more brutal, and it emulates the zombie’s guts falling out: as Sarah lies in bed, she imagines seeing Miguel similarly lean over with his insides evacuating, then comes back to reality fast. These alone are worth the price of admission regarding special makeup effects. Savini really pulls out his big guns in this movie, taking away the comic book garishness(/awesomeness) from his Dawn of the Dead zombie work, replacing those qualities with equal excellence on top of dirty, disturbing and realistic blood. Not knocking his previous work for Romero, on the contrary – I love it (check here if you don’t believe me). There’s simply a better, more terrifying aspect to the special makeup effects here; while the cartoon-like essence in Dawn of the Dead came a subtle creepiness, here it’s an outright mortifying feeling Savini gives us. Thank you, Tom!
BEST DECAPITATION IN ANY FILM – EVER. My vote goes for a scene around the 1 hour 27 minute mark. A soldier is surprised from behind by a group of the living dead when they pin him down, each grabbing bits and pieces of his flesh, then tear his head off. My favourite part is his scream – as they start to pull the head off, neck separating from shoulders and sternum, his voice gets higher and higher until the vocal cords literally snap off, blood spurting, and the entire head is free. Amazing, amazing special effects here. Such beautiful practical work in the horror genre, really a crowning achievement as far as I’m concerned. And not just that: it’s nasty as all hell.
Human beings are shit. Romero knows this is at least partly true. One part of why I love the scientist vs. military conflict here is because each side is presented as having their faults or their wrongdoings; not every individual is bad, but neither whole side is presented as totally in the right. For instance, though the military men are all pretty much horrible human beings, except for Miguel (he’s just gone absolutely insane), the scientists are not all rosy and perfect either – Logan and his experiments are a little barbaric, mostly considering he’s opted not to tell the soldiers about using other dead soldiers for extra meat. So sure, the scientists are ultimately trying to do the right thing, in whatever way it can be accomplished. There’s still an unethical aspect to the way they’re going about the mission. What Romero does with this plot is show us how not all soldiers are culpable in the terrible actions of soldiers in general, just as not all scientists are working towards the greater good most scientists try and work towards achieving. Every side has their good souls, every side their bad. But the bad ones – man, does Romero ever show us how bad they can get when the going gets tough.
Generally it’s the sense of isolation which gets to me about this Romero masterpiece – it has so much suspense and tension because of its setting, generally lending itself to an air of eeriness. Night of the Living Dead was located mostly in the farmhouse, so there is a real sense of tightness, the characters enclosed and withdrawing further into the house at times. Dawn of the Dead even dared to get a little more claustrophobic because even within the mall, once zombies started to overrun the place there was nowhere for the survivors to go, or at least limited options of where to start running. What’s devastatingly intense at times about Day of the Dead is the fact they’re all underground. Even with the helicopter up above and a way to fly off, there’s still a ton of zombies trying to get in. Plus, once Miguel does the unthinkable after his craziness reaches its peak, the zombies filter into the underground bunker. So it’s WAY WORSE than the mall in the previous movie because so far below ground there are less ways to escape than a huge building aboveground. Add to that all the human elements of Romero’s wonderfully written screenplay, you’ve got yourself a backload of tension and unnerving suspense happening on an almost constant basis.
Another 5 star film from George A. Romero. I’m huge on his films in general, not just the zombie work. But god damn it if he doesn’t make the greatest possible use of the living dead, adding solid horror to solid writing concerning sociopolitical issues to create a unique brand of horror sub-genre storytelling. Not every last piece of his zombie movies are full of issues – some times it’s just great and vicious horror. Though, it’s hard to deny how well Romero captures the issues of the day. Moreover, still as I write this in 2015, the issues continue to stay relevant: we’re almost always living in an era where the brutality of the military and politicians with their want for war come up against more rational, scientific approaches to the world around us. Day of the Dead is a masterful horror film in general and one of the greatest zombie films ever made. Personally, it’s my favourite of Romero’s Dead series because there’s a wholly unique quality to it even above his others. If you’ve not yet seen this, please do so. Particularly if you are big into zombies – you’ll see a lot of this film’s influence in other more contemporary zombie movies, as well as The Walking Dead of course. And really, it is just a solid, effective work of horror well worth your undivided attention.
The Inhabitants. 2015. Directed/Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen.
Starring Elise Couture, Michael Reed, India Pearl, Vasilios Asimakos, Danny Bryck, Judith Chaffee, Erica Derrickson, Edmund Donovan, Victoria Nugent, and Rebecca Whitehurst. Lascaux Media/Sinister Siblings Films. Unrated. 90 minutes.
A few weeks back, one half of the filmmaker duo the Rasmussen Brothers (writers of John Carpenter’s The Ward) contacted me in regards to their new film The Inhabitants. Now available on VOD, the Rasmussen Bros were kind enough to give me the Vimeo link and password to watch the movie ahead of time. Only now getting around to it – busy man here – I must say, the depressingly low rating on IMDB is exactly that: depressing. Now, to start, I don’t go by what IMDB tells me; it’s a site I use, I rate things on my own scale to try and balance so many of the unfair ratings of decent to good (sometimes to great) films. However, it’s not something I gauge films by, as I leave that to my own sensibilities and taste. There are, yes, certain aspects of film you can objectively look at and say “This is well done” or “This is bad”, yet so much of how we experience any art, film included, is entirely subjective. You’ll never separate yourself entirely from the subjective part of your mind because in all your opinions you’re coming from some place, a location. I always keep that in mind with my reviews and ratings, so should you if you’re reading mine or anyone else’s opinion on a film – I recognize my reviews are from a subjective place.
That being said, The Inhabitants is not a great film. Though, it has some really great aspects. Not breaking any fresh ground particularly, the Rasmussen Bros do create a pretty decent aesthetic from their use of the camera itself to the nice spooky sound design. Perhaps a meatier plot would’ve done the film well – it feels a lot like the skeleton is there, the story itself, just not enough actual plot points other than vague elements through which the characters allowed to walk. Still, I found this indie haunted house-style movie effective in terms of its mood and the generally solid atmosphere of creepiness the filmmakers were able to build from start to finish.
When Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) purchase a quaint little bed and breakfast in the New England countryside, it seems like the American Dream – idyllic forest and sprawling landscapes. Then they start to find problems, such as the nagging legend of a witch and the strange occurrences happening throughout the old house.
In the beginning, even the weird moments Jessica experiences aren’t too threatening. Slowly as the couple get acclimated to the bed and breakfast, its surroundings, the nearby Witch Museum, it is painfully clear the house’s own history is much darker, more terrible than any real estate agent would ever be willing to admit.
What I do enjoy about The Inhabitants is the aesthetic overall. The sound design itself adds a wonderful layer of spookiness. There’s no score so much as there are a few small pieces, plus a ton of the sound design in terms of very dark, brooding and destabilizing sounds; it puts you on an edge, even if there’s nothing exactly threatening or sinister happening the at times dark ambient noise in the background makes everything feel uneasy.
Something which makes the sound design better and more effective is how the Rasmussen Bros don’t opt for a bunch of jump scares in order to spook us. Yes, there are some in there, but it’s not a relied upon method the director-writer pair are interested in exploiting. I love a good jump scare, if it’s properly done and doesn’t become a trope within one movie itself; nothing worse than a technique overdone, regardless of what it is in the end. So most of what the Rasmussens are able to create here is a genuinely unnerving mood, with the visuals shot pretty beautifully alongside the sound design’s low, creepy swell.
One of my favourite moments come just barely past the 1-hour mark – Dan has this dream, a terrifying image of Jessica comes to him: she’s breastfeeding a small child, then when he gets closer it appears as some dead corpse-like thing, a skull for a face. It’s so brief that it works wonders for the scare factor! Not even a jump scare so much as it’s a quick little WHOA. Very cool and grim stuff.
My only big legitimate problem with The Inhabitants is the plot, as I mentioned earlier. Not that I feel the plot is bad, there just isn’t enough. The bones of the story exist – it isn’t innovative or new, but at least there’s a story in place which could be used to flesh out a scary plot and some decent characterization. Even further, we get bits and pieces of the main characters, who they are, their personalities. Though, I don’t feel as if there’s enough of Jessica or Dan to truly care and become involved in their personal plight. Ultimately, issue being, in all the wandering of the characters – through the darkness of the house, et cetera – the screenplay wanders about a great deal.
The actors do a fairly decent job with their characters – Couture and Reed do a solid job for the most part with the two leads. It’s simply a problem of character. Sure, we get lots of nice stuff happening as the house sort of takes hold over Jessica in particular. There’s even a part earlier when she finds a sonogram, a few little clever lines thrown in without too much overt and talky exposition. However, none of it pays off in the right sense. The characters aren’t dull, I just wish we could’ve gotten more of a sense about who these two were before the plot of the film begins. As it stands, they’re just two people in a haunted house being affected by all its eeriness, like there’s no way to gauge how the effects are running wild on them because all we get really is a look at the post-haunting couple. But I’ve got to make it clear, I think the Rasmussen Bros do well with the characterization and plot present by at least not going hard on the exposition. Too many films, horror specifically, try to heavy hand the dialogue in and let you know EVERY LITTLE THING THAT IS HAPPENING/HAS HAPPENED, and then there’s absolutely no mystery left. At the very least, the screenplay keeps an air of intrigue instead of hamfisting the plot and story down our esophagus. There are pieces which go nowhere, there are also no pieces where I felt a few morsels ought to bed. Overall, I’m just glad that – while too overly vague at times – the writing isn’t completely spoon fed to the viewer, and the writer-director brothers still try to leave some of the legwork to their audio/visual aesthetic.
I’m not going to be a pessimist about this film and say it’s no good at all; it is good. There are some excellent things happening and I feel, as directors, the Rasmussen Brothers know how to properly create a sense of dread, an atmosphere full of creepy, spooky mood and tone. This is, to me, a 3 out of 5 star film. Definitely could use more work on the plot itself, I would’ve been even more impressed with this independent horror movie if the writer brothers cultivated better characters. Still, the acting wasn’t typically atrocious like a lot of indie horror, and the palpable atmosphere from the first scene right to the last is enough to keep you glued. Plenty of gorgeously dark imagery and the house/the forest is captured visually with such eeriness it’s hard to deny. With a little more work, though, the Rasmussen Brothers are on their way to making really solid horror movies. I hope they’ll keep it up.