Black Sabbath (1963)

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Mario Bava, where have you been all my life? The Italian horror maestro really is just worming his way into my heart, especially after Black Sabbath, his 1963 horror anthology film. When you put Boris Karloff, vampires, and floating corpses in the same film, you’re guaranteed to get my attention.

Black Sabbath comprises three stories of about a half hour each, making up three different subgenres of horror. The first is “The Telephone,” about a young woman who keeps receiving threatening phone calls from a stalker late one night. The second, starring Karloff, is “The Wurdulak,” a vampire story about Gurca (Karloff), the patriarch of a family who has successfully killed a vampire that’s been terrorizing the countryside, only to become a victim of the creature himself. Finally, “The Drop of Water” is a ghost story about a woman who steals a ring from a corpse and is subsequently haunted in the weirdest and creepiest way.

All three stories take fairly standard horror narratives and give them a creepy spin. “The Wurdulak” in particular introduces some interesting elements to the vampire story, with the vampire longing for the blood of those he loved the most during life. Unfortunately, it’s also the dullest of the three episodes, drawing out the narrative to an unnatural length and introducing a mild love story into the mix that fails to summon any heat. “The Telephone” is a precursor to what would become the more prevalent giallo style – deeply stylized with perverse psycho-sexual undertones, it’s a delicious little aperitif before the meat of the other two episodes.

But the best of the three is undoubtedly “The Drop of Water,” a tight, intense piece of horror filmmaking that makes the most out of its short runtime. It’s actually quite a scary episode, showcasing a grotesque narrative quite similar to Corman’s Poe adaptations. And while the conclusion is extreme – even a bit silly by today’s standards – most of the episode is remarkably subdued, relying more on pulsing lights and eerie noises than on cheap jump scares. It’s an excellent piece of horror filmmaking, and could stand on its own as a short without the support of the other two.

Black Sabbath has forced me to appreciate Bava’s work, and to actively seek out more of it. And I’m a bit excited to indulge in the oeuvre of a new director.

Black Sabbath is available to stream via Shudder.

Friday the 13th (1980)

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October may be over, but my reviews of horror films are not! Next up is one of the seminal slasher films of the 1980s: Friday the 13th, the movie that introduced the world to Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Voorhees (kinda). Along with its fellow creep-outs Halloween and Nightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13th (and its sequels) are responsible for setting the standard of slashers.

Friday the 13th opens with the murder of two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, in 1958. Shot from the POV of the killer, the two counselors get caught in flagrante, naturally resulting in their bloody deaths. Fast forward many years and Camp Crystal Lake is about to be re-opened for the summer, with a whole new crop of nubile young people to violently slaughter. The group of counselors show up to help get the camp into shape – despite the dire warnings from townsfolk of a horrible curse – and bodies begin to pile up, as the shadowy killer dispatches our young heroes one by one.

The problem with Friday the 13th is that it’s just not a very good slasher film. The set-up itself is strong enough, and the murders appropriately gruesome. But the characters are too sparsely drawn to be interesting – they’re interchangeable faces that could be ranked by degrees of annoyance. The Final Girl (whose role you can guess pretty quickly) is laughably inept at escaping once the killer’s identity has been revealed.

While mulling over why the murders just didn’t up the tension at all, I came to realize that none of them are discovered until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. The surviving counselors don’t know they’re in danger at all, and so calmly wander around in the rain and the dark, unaware of an insane killer lurking in the shadows. And because no one else in the film is scared, the audience has no reason to be scared. We know that pretty much everyone is going to die; it’s just a question of how.

The same goes for the killer, whose backstory is never even touched on until an extensive exposition scene nearing the end. The local legend about the camp being cursed is introduced and then rapidly discarded, with nothing to flesh it out. While killers like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers have fairly intricate backstories that draw out their monstrosity and give it life, the killer of Friday the 13th has no mystique at all. (And there’s little doubt that both Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were directed by very talented horror maestros, while Friday the 13th…wasn’t).

I’ve been informed that the better Friday the 13th sequels wind up outweighing the original, but I admit I don’t much care. I’ve got this film under my belt, and I’m OK with letting it rest at that.

Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)

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OK, if you don’t adore Ernest P. Worrell, then you obviously have not allowed joy and magic into your life. The creation of Jim Varney, Ernest began life as a character in TV ads, only to become so popular that he got his own TV show and, eventually, his own movie series. Is Ernest stupid? Yes. Are the movies silly? Totally. And therein lies their magic.

Ernest Scared Stupid is a later entry into the Ernest series, but it’s also my favorite. It opens in the late 19th Century with the townsfolk of Briarville, Missouri capturing a troll that has been stealing the souls of the town’s children. As they bury him beneath a sapling tree, the troll curses the town and town elder Phineas Worrell in particular. The troll promises to return, brought back to life by a Worrell. Flash forward to the present day, and Phineas’s descendant Ernest is now the local garbage man, spending his off-hours inventing ever more stupid time-saving devices and hanging out with the local children Kenny, Elizabeth, and Joey (Austin Agler, Shay Astar, and Alec Klapper). When the kids decide to build a treehouse to hide out from the local bullies, Ernest lends them a hand – only to inadvertently awaken the troll that slumbers beneath. Comedy horror ensues as the troll attempts to capture enough souls to awaken his sleeping troll army, and Ernest tries to stop him (with the help of local crazy lady Francis Hackmore, played an epic Eartha Kitt).

Ernest Scared Stupid is a kid’s movie very much in the vein of The Worst WitchThe Witches, and Hocus Pocus. The troll legitimately terrified me as a kid, to the degree that I spent a Halloween season checking under my bed. The film is less scary now, but still pretty funny as long as you’re willing to indulge in Varney’s light, mugging comedy. Ernest is more childlike than really stupid, a companion character to Pee-wee Herman, whose great love in life is his dog Rimshot. Most enjoyable are his secondary “split-personality” characters that he falls into suddenly and often inexplicably (my family still uses the line “Hairspray will fix anything” from this film). The characters lend a burst of surrealism to the film as Ernest does battle with the troll by shifting into the roles of a British explorer, World War II fighter pilot, and elderly grand-dame without blinking an eye.

Every once in a while, it’s nice to get away from dark terror and just watch a silly Halloween movie about candy and pumpkins. Ernest Scared Stupid still reminds me of my childhood, in the best possible way.

Ringu (1998)

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In movies as in life, look for originals. Rather than going for the American remake of The Ring, I decided to read some subtitles and watch the original Japanese Ringu first – mostly because the Japanese generally have a unique and profoundly disturbing outlook on ghosts, curses, and the trappings of horror. I must say that I was not disappointed.

Ringu begins with a surprisingly expositional sequence in which two teenage girls try to scare each other by talking about a mysterious videotape that, once watched, kills you a week later. When one of the girls dies and the other goes mad, it attracts the attention of a news organization and investigator Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), the aunt of Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi), the girl who died. As Reiko delves into the origins of the curse story, she discovers that Tomoko and each of her friends who supposedly watched the tape died on the same day. This leads her finally to Izu and the cabin where Tomoko discovered the tape. When Reiko watches the strange video, she begins to believe in the curse, and seeks the help of her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a teacher with ESP, to discover a way to break the curse.

Due to its popularity in and out of Japan, Ringu bears many hallmarks and images that have become ingrained in world cinematic culture. It’s a testament to the film’s brilliance that it’s still scary, almost twenty years on. Although dependent on outmoded technology, the grainy nature of VHS, the ability to record long swathes of programming (or static) and keep it, have a bizarre and frightening quality to them. And Ringu keeps the visual horror to a minimum, relying instead on stories about spirits, whispered threats, vague rumors, and strange noises in the middle of the night to develop the tension. The “monster” of the film doesn’t appear until quite late, and then arrives with such a pop that it’s still impossible not to be frightened.

Japanese culture has a far different relationship to the spirit world than contemporary American culture – like its counterpart Ju-on (The Grudge), Ringu relies on complex concepts of ghosts and vengeful spirits that outstretch the modern period. The horror goes on, because it is based in betrayal or vengeance and not in demand for something that can be appeased. It can attach itself even to those who don’t deserve it, or who aren’t involved in the original violation, and will destroy them just as surely as the violators. That’s a terrifying notion.

Ringu definitely stands as my favorite (thus far) of the films I’ve seen this spooky season.

Black Sunday (1960)

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Mario Bava is another one of those classic horror filmmakers whose work I have (unforgivably) managed to miss. Considered the grand-daddy of Italian giallo – and one of the most influential of Italian horror artists – Bava married Corman-esque gothic sensibilities with more extreme (for 1960) horror gore. Black Sunday was one of his biggest critical and popular successes, and remains a touchstone for horror filmmakers to this day.

Black Sunday features Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful vampire/witch sentenced to death by her own brother. Following the execution of her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), Asa vows vengeance on her brother’s descendants, right before a devil’s mask studded with spikes is pounded into her flesh (the original title of the film was The Mask of Satan). Two hundred years later, we meet the descendants of the cursed family: Katia (Steele again), her father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). They become acquainted with two traveling doctors who stumble upon Asa’s tomb one stormy afternoon. Investigating the crypt, the elder doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) accidentally awakens Asa after cutting his hand and dripping blood on her corpse. This sets off a chain of events as Asa attempts to take back her life – and her beauty – while wreaking horrible vengeance on her descendants.

Black Sunday is very similar to a 60s Corman film, down to the involvement of Steele (who appeared in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum one year later), the gothic trappings, and the use of more gruesome violence than we expect from a black and white horror movie. Corpses ooze pus and blood, masks are nailed into living flesh, and witches are burned alive. While the black and white takes away some of the impact, the chiaroscuro is so deep and pulsating that it makes up for the lack of lurid splashes of red and green. The opening execution in particular is perfect horror filmmaking, the camera unflinching in documenting all the nastiness. In some ways, Black Sunday more closely approximates the weird sadism of 18th and 19th Century sensationalist literature than do the more sanitized versions of Frankenstein and Dracula produced by Universal.

Black Sunday fits right into the context of the horror films made by Corman in America and Hammer Studios in England, becoming a precursor to the far nastier films made by Dario Argento and Bava himself. And it’s a good film, if read in that context. But, Black Sunday misses the key ingredient that Corman managed with his Poe adaptations by failing to hire even one competent male actor as a lead. Vincent Price made Corman’s films wild-eyed and palatable, chewing the scenery with such loving gusto that one wants to enjoy the luridness just as much as he does. Neither the romantic lead John Richardson, playing the young doctor Andre, nor the actors in the villainous roles are of any real note. Steele is the real draw here, but a girl can only do so much.

Black Sunday is a perfectly enjoyable horror film. Does it make much sense? No. Is the acting all that great? Not really. But there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Black Sunday is available to stream on Shudder.

Piranha (1978)

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As a self-proclaimed Joe Dante fan, I am heartily ashamed that it took me this long to get around to seeing Piranha. The ridiculous 1978 Jaws rip-off, from a script by John Sayles, is nothing short of delirious monster movie fun that can only come to us from the loving camera of the director of The Howling and Gremlins.

Piranha opens with two teenagers making the unhygienic decision to skinny-dip in a government reservoir near Lost River Lake, surrounded by a massive fence and signs that say “Do Not Enter.” When the teenagers are consumed by underwater forces unknown and vanish without a trace, private insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) comes in to look for them. She buddies up with alcoholic curmudgeon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) who lives in the mountains of Lost River, and together they hunt down the government facility where the teenagers went missing. Draining the reservoir to try and locate the bodies, the pair are set upon by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who provides the exposition: they’ve unwittingly released hyper-intelligent, weaponized piranha into the river.

Piranha is spectacularly ludicrous and knows it. Dr. Hoak gives an extensive explanation as to why he’s been weaponizing piranha at a secret government facility, itself just as ridiculous as the idea of creating a breed of carnivorous fish that can now organize themselves, outwit human beings, and survive in fresh and salt water. But while much time is spent on setting up the situation, even more is spent in the gleeful indulgence of B-movie mayhem. The piranha attack without mercy, ripping up fishermen, beach-goers, and innocent campers on their journey downriver. The violence is actually quite gory and very well-done – not exactly Jaws, but good enough to make me cringe quite a bit.

In addition to McCarthy, the film features the always welcome faces of Keenan Wynn and B-movie superstar Barbara Steele (providing probably the best final close-up of any monster movie…ever), as well as Dante’s usual character actors, including Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Because the film knows its status as a Jaws rip-off, Dante gets to indulge in subversive humor, weird secondary characters, and ripping on military authority with a loving glee. This is a movie about how amazing horror movies are, and how much fun they should be.

While Piranha is unlikely to replace The Howling in my affections, it comes in a pretty close second. It’s just good fun, right down to the cheesy one-liners and silly open-ending.

Opera (1987)

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Dario Argento is one of the true greats in horror. And while his films usually produce mixed reactions, there’s no doubt that they’re disquieting products of a unique mind. Opera is not one of his best, but damn it’s got some fine horror in the middle of the morass.

Following the injury of the leading lady in a production of Verdi’s Macbeth, understudy soprano Betty (Cristina Marsillach) finds herself thrust into the lead role. But almost the second that she takes the stage, a masked man begins murdering the cast and crew, forcing Betty to watch by tying her up and propping her eyelids open with pins. The film interweaves numerous POV shots from the killer’s perspective as he pursues Betty in a lethal game of sadistic voyeurism with an operatic soundtrack.

The setting of an opera is tailor-made for Argento, a chance to indulge in the gaudy giallo that made his films famous. And the film’s murders are appropriately extreme and well-done, horrifying without being off-puttingThe use of the POV shots is especially unnerving, the camera jiggling and jerking and bringing us up close to acts of sadistic violence in a way that no other filmmaker has approximated.

Unfortunately, Opera suffers from a lack of coherent plot. While Argento’s favorite themes of sadism, murder, and repressed childhood memories abound, he can’t seem to bring them all together to a clear conclusion. He wastes the central conceit of the opera-which has so many possibilities-by focusing instead on Betty’s bizarre tendency to not report the crimes she’s seen committed. Where Suspiria gave us a plucky heroine plunged into a surreal nightmare world, Opera gives us a disconnected young woman who takes multiple murders in stride. The final act especially is tacked on, a twisty conclusion that actually reminded me of the breakdown at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While none of Argento’s films hang together in the perfect narrative sense, this one in particular just lacks any notion of coherency.

That being said, Opera does have a nightmarish quality that makes it an enjoyable, if lesser, example of Argento’s work. The violence is so gaudy that it’s almost funny. Imperfect and a lesser film than many an Argento, Opera has enough surreal, nightmarish horror to make for a delirious indulgence.