Bloody October: The Cat and The Canary (1927)

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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I am a sucker for old dark house stories; the older and darker, the better. These stories were clichéd from practically the moment they were created, but like many clichés, they have a sense of fun to them that few more original narratives manage to approximate. One of the earliest such narratives – on film at least – is The Cat and the Canary, a silent film from director Paul Leni, one of the oft-forgotten masters of German Expressionism.

The film opens with the slow madness and then death of millionaire Cyrus West, who inhabits a multi-turreted Gothic mansion somewhere in the bleak and inaccessible countryside. The intertitles inform us that West was slowly driven mad by his grasping, greedy relatives, as they gathered around him like “cats around a canary.” So West decides to pay them back for their avarice, writing a will to remain locked in a safe until the 20th anniversary of his death, when his lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) will open it and announce his heir.

Fast forward those twenty years to one dark and stormy night. The relatives gather for the reading of the will at the Gothic mansion, still presided over by Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), a leering and creepy old housekeeper if ever there was one. When Lawyer Crosby arrives to open the safe, he discovers not one but two wills, with instructions to open the second if the first is not fulfilled. He’s more disturbed by the presence of a moth, indicating that someone has opened the safe in the past twenty years. Then the relatives arrive: Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor), and finally Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). As the family gather round for the midnight reading of the will, the clock strikes for the first time in twenty years and thunder shakes the house.

The heir, of course, turns out to be Annabelle West, the only member of the family who still bears the West surname. Her relatives are predictably disappointed, but things get interesting when Crosby raises a caveat to the will. The heir must be proved to be of sound mind by a doctor arriving that night; if she’s insane, then the fortune passes to the person mentioned in the second will. So with the set-up for potential murder and madness in place, everyone heads off to dinner.

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The Cat and the Canary is a surprising film for a number of reasons. Its highly Expressionist opening and rather clichéd structure make it appear like a quintessential early horror film. When a guard from an asylum turns up to warn the house’s inhabitants of a lunatic in the neighborhood – one who “tears his victims apart, like a cat with a canary” – we are solidly in the archetypal realm. Even the characters are less characters and more types: the ingenue, the maiden aunt, the dashing hero, the coward, and the creepy housekeeper. But as the film goes on, the types will be gradually played with and subverted, their roles thrown into relief as the night brings out the madness in them all.

The film manages to hit all the buttons that we might expect from an “old dark house”: a possible ghost, a hidden treasure, a fair maiden in danger, secret passages, vanishing corpses, and a dark and stormy night. It then injects a healthy dose of humor into the mix: cousin Paul is a coward of the first order, diving under tables, and at one point secreting himself beneath Cecily’s bed, where he unfortunately witnesses Aunt Susan and Cecily getting undressed (Wikipedia claims that the pair are mother and daughter, however I always thought that Cecily was just another cousin). As the night drags on and creepy things continue to happen, the extreme reactions of some of the family members provide more humor than fear.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some seriously scary moments in The Cat and the Canary. With the disappearance of Crosby, Annabelle’s sanity comes into question – and only the audience has seen the vague, shadowy figure ducking into secret passageways. It’s amazing what can be done with a long-nailed hand coming out of a wall, or a bizarre shape creeping past a window, made all the more bizarre due to lack of ambient sound.cat-and-canary-1927-imagery

While not exactly a film to provide jump scares or raise your heart-rate, The Cat and the Canary is curiously haunting. It will be remade two more times, once in 1939 and then again 1978, but the silent one is really the best, combining humor and horror, strong practical effects and Expressionist sets. The scares are still there, almost a hundred years later. It’s hard not to shiver when that hand comes out of the wall.

Bloody October: The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)

The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)

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I’ve decided to combine my reviews of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Room 237, the 2012 documentary about theories surrounding the meaning of The Shining. This is largely because just about everyone and their mother has written a review of The Shining and I have little new to add to the general consensus that it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.

The Shining (in case you’ve managed to miss both it and The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror sequence “The Shinning”) is about a nuclear family that decides it’s a good idea to hole up in a massive hotel in the mountains of Colorado, where they will see no one else for five months. The last caretaker happened to chop up his entire family into little tiny pieces, but whatever. Five months rent free!

You know the drill. Jack Nicholson goes all kinds of crazy – as if he wasn’t already – and chases Shelley Duvall and the adorable Danny Lloyd around with an axe after his ghostly friends tell him to. Kubrick creates a deep sense of wrong and foreboding from the very beginning. Subtlety is the name of the game in The Shining; the hotel seems off, with winding corridors that don’t quite make sense, offices with windows where there should be none, shifts in decoration that feel unnatural. The Shining trades on peripheral vision, the sense that something is just not quite right. Kubrick pulls this off by introducing or eliminating small elements in a single frame: a chair that’s there one minute and gone the next; a cigarette with smoke circling inward instead of outward. There are undercurrents of abuse – Danny’s shoulder was once dislocated by his father, though this is claimed as an accident – and unnamed violence. Is the hotel really haunted, or is this Jack having a breakdown? Does Danny cause the madness of his father, a mental projection of anger and hatred? It’s a fascinating, labyrinthine film that gives no real answers or explanations. As Scatman Crothers remarks to Danny, there are just traces left over from the past.

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If The Shining is indeed a movie about traces, Room 237 spins a few convincing (and less convincing) yarns about those traces. Giving voice to some of the interesting, odd and often outlandish theories about the meaning of The ShiningRoom 237 largely avoids passing judgment on the theorists, allowing them to speak for themselves. And the theories are interesting indeed. One presupposes that the whole story is about the genocide of the American Indians, marking out instances of Native American decorations and photographs that dot the hotel. Oddly, the issue of the Calumet baking soda cans prevalent in several shots is dwelt on more than the fact that the Overlook is built on an ‘ancient Indian burial ground,’ that favorite of horror story tropes.

Another less convincing analysis has a German history scholar examining relations of The Shining to the Holocaust – because all post-war violence has something to do with the Holocaust, and Jack totally uses a GERMAN typewriter. A third theorist tries to claim that Kubrick was using The Shining as a way of telling us all that he was involved in faking the moon landing (what?).

Room 237 is not all crazy, though. Most of these theorists have noticed fascinating elements in the film that might otherwise pass unnoticed. All, however, take their analysis just that one step too far, claiming that the film is ABOUT this and only this, and trying – sometimes in very extreme ways – to prove their case.  What none of them focus on, though, are the very disturbing gender relationships, eliding over Jack’s aggression towards his wife and the notion of ‘correcting’ the bad behavior of women and children through physical violence. I’m amazed that anyone can spend twenty minutes proving the genocide of the American Indians via baking soda cans, but miss the whole “I’m gonna bash your fucking brains in”.

The Shining and Room 237 are fascinating to watch together, however, and well worth the time. While none of the proposed explanations are convincing on final analysis, they all pick up on elements within the film that make it so very fascinating to watch.  The Shining is not just a great horror film; it’s a great film, and still has the power to scare the hell out of you.

Bloody October: The Fog (1980)

The Fog (1980)

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There are certain gaps in my horror film education that I have struggled to fill. While I’m very good on Roger Corman, James Whale and Tod Browning, I have missed out on the major works of directors like Wes Craven, Dario Argento and, I realize, John Carpenter. Some of this is due to a total lack of interest in slasher films or most body horror, but as a horror fan I cannot run forever. Some films I simply have to see.

The Fog is one of those Carpenter films that I heard good things about and never got around to watching until now. I’m pleased that I did so. It all begins with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling a scary story to kids at a campfire. The story sets up the rest of the film, which plays like an urban legend. The town of Antonio Bay suddenly goes crazy one night, with car alarms going off, pieces of stone falling out of walls, and the ground rattling with an unmeasured earthquake. Meanwhile, a glowing fog rolls in across the water, traveling against the wind. The fog, as Mr. Machen tells us, once caused the deaths of ship full of people, crashing them against the rocks in the Bay 100 years ago on that very night. Now it has returned to Antonio Bay, and it brings with it a strange and terrible vengeance.

The Fog really could have gone either way. The notion is a good one – a traveling fog that envelops and murders – but it could easily have slipped into hokey special effects and people running away from a cloud. Carpenter is a better filmmaker than that, thank God. He instills a sense of otherworldly terror in the fog – there are ghosts that come with it, but for the most part they are glimpsed in shadow and profile, announced by a pounding on the door or wall, proceeded by fog and haze. The horror lies in the build-up, not the execution, and there are few filmmakers from the 1980s so capable of building suspense as John Carpenter.

The cast helps too. Jamie Lee Curtis is on hand as a sweet young hitch-hiker who just happens to wind up in Antonio Bay. Her mother Janet Leigh puts in an amusing appearance as one of the town pillars. Adrienne Barbeau is the local radio DJ and as close to a final girl type as we’re going to get. There’s also Hal Holbrook playing a drunken priest who discovers the true story of the founding of Antonio Bay, and the reason why the fog is … really pissed off.

It’s a simple but effective story told in a simple but effective way, which is what good horror filmmaking is all about. Elaborate backstories, big CGI effects and convoluted character development be damned. Horror is about good scares, and The Fog has that in abundance.

Bloody October: Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator (1985)

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I’m a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so it was with a feeling of shock and shame that I realized that I had not seen what’s often considered the greatest adaptation of a Lovecraft story ever: Re-Animator, from 1985. So I queued up my Netflix, popped my popcorn, and settled down for what was sure to be a 1980s schlock-extravaganza.

What had I done? I’d been warned about the grossness of Re-Animator, but I did not expect…this. Granted that Lovecraft adores indulging in oozing viscosity and putrid terrors from the beyond, I still did not expect to be translated so very literally to the screen. But my word it was! Re-Animator is one of the grosser, funnier horror films I’ve seen, and I enjoyed every overblown, overheated minute of it.

Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant but quite insane medical student who has created a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life. The problem is that the serum mostly just brings back the primitive instincts, not the higher brain functions, effectively turning reanimated corpses into hyper-strong atavistic zombies. It’s a combination of Frankenstein and a zombie movie by way of Lovecraft.

West goes to Miskatonic University (the site of most of Lovecraft’s educational based narrative), where he connects with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Halsey). He also runs afoul of Dr. Hill (David Gale), a doctor whose work on brain death West directly challenged. But all the plot machinations are largely excuses for West and Dan to make some zombies, re-animate some corpses, and explode some body parts in a hail of blood and guts.

The first half of Re-Animator plays like a typical camp 80s horror film; the second half is pure insanity. Staff members are murdered, college deans are turned into zombie slaves, Megan (predictably) loses all her clothes, and severed heads return to life in some of the most hilarious, ridiculous and disgusting ways imaginable. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens in Re-Animator without resorting to noises of shock and horror, not to mention insane laughter.

There are moments in Re-Animator that would be offensive if they did not take place in such an insane film to begin with. The lengths the film goes to get Megan naked is quite remarkable, but it never quite crosses the line into offensive exploitation. The whole film is so mad that it would be impossible to claim that any one scene goes too far. Props to actress Barbara Halsey, though, for being willing to go the extra mile for … art, I guess.

Jeffrey Combs is the mad center of this mad film, his Herbert West fascinating and repellant and, by the end of it, strangely likable. He’s Dr. Frankenstein on acid, dedicated to his cause and completely without morals. I loved him.

No everyone will love this film. Many will be repelled by the sheer amount of blood and gore, or the sight of a headless man attempting to fellate a girl tied to a morgue slab. But it is, indeed, one of the best, maddest Lovecraft adaptations ever likely to be made. Mr. Lovecraft would be incredibly proud.

Bloody October: House On Haunted Hill

LAST NIGHT: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

“A woman was just hung in the stairwell; there was a severed head in a girl’s suitcase, we all have loaded guns and Vincent Price is our host.  Well, good night!”

William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest House on Haunted Hill is iconic and ridiculous.  If Vincent Price offered you $10,000 to spend a night in a haunted mansion, would you go? No, of course you wouldn’t.  Because he’s VINCENT PRICE.  But apparently the five idiots who accompany him didn’t know that.  Thank God, for otherwise this movie would not exist and we would all be the worse for it.

I have no idea what to do with this movie.  It should be terrible – because it is.  The acting is largely atrocious, the plot nonsensical, the script alternately slow and sudden.  And yet…and yet.  I loved it.  Every second of it.  Why? WHY? Well, one why is Vincent Price, who no matter how many bad films he made always injects an edge of class and camp into his performances that made him the go-to guy for schlocky horror.  The other why is the crazy factor of the whole enterprise.  We have seven people locked in a haunted – high modern mansion, and what does their host do? He gives them loaded guns.  There are severed heads that appear randomly in closets which everyone seems to take in stride.  There’s a fucking vat of acid in the basement and this does not cause any great consternation.  These people are insane.

House on Haunted Hill is the best of bad 50s horror – total fun with a few proper scares.

Bloody October: The Changeling

LAST NIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

I’m a huge fan of haunted house movies, but I had never seen or even heard of this one until some good people over at Man, I Love Films recommended it.  I was pleased to discover that it’s a cut above many scary movies; in fact, it ranks right up there with The Haunting and The Shining.

George C. Scott is John Russell, a composer who recently lost his wife and daughter and is having difficulty getting over it.  So he moves from NYC to Seattle and rents a huge Victorian mansion; because a single man in the throes of grief should definitely live alone in a massive house.  Things begin to go bump in the night, prompting Russell to research into the history of the house, only to discover freaky goings-on, a boarded up attic and a little kid’s wheelchair that moves on its own.  I won’t go into more details, but it gets pretty scary.

The Changeling is very much in the vein of del Toro’s The Orphanage – the haunted house is not exactly malign, but angry, and with good reason. Rather than running screaming into the night, Russell becomes convinced that the ghost is trying to get in touch with him, to solve the mystery of who or what it is and why it isn’t at rest.  The director Peter Medak gives us plenty of scares, but they’re not over the top – a piano playing by itself, an unidentified thumping, that rolling wheelchair.  It’s a sad, affecting film, not just a scary one.  Highly recommended by this first time viewer.

Bloody October: The Howling

LAST NIGHT: THE HOWLING (1981)

I have been informed by reliable and unimpeachable sources (my friend Trey Lawson, who also introduced me to this film) that werewolf fans divide themselves into two camps: American Werewolf in London partisans and The Howling loyalists.  While I love both movies – and I love werewolf movies period – I have to give the edge to The Howling.  Instead of focusing on one snarling lycanthrope, it gives us a whole colony of violent, depraved, campy puppies in heat.

Joe Dante’s low-budget creepfest starts out like a 80s serial killer film, with reporter Karen White (Dee Chamber, breathy) trolling the streets of seedy LA in search of a serial killer who recently contacted her.  She undergoes a very freaky experience in a sex shop in which the killer Eddie (Robert Picardo, terrifying) is apparently shot by cops.  To recover from her traumatic experience, her psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, delicious) sends her up north to the Colony for some rest and relaxation.  Because putting a bunch of paranoid schizophrenics in the same backwoods place is a brilliant idea.

Dante and screenwriter John Sayles throws everything but the kitchen sink into this one.  Half the characters are named after the directors of werewolf movies (George Waggner, Terence Fisher, Sam Newfield, etc.); there are scenes from The Wolf Man playing on various TVs, one character reads Allan Ginsburg’s Howl, and everyone likes Wolf’s brand Chili.  Slim Pickens is the local sheriff  (because even in California the sheriffs are Texans) and John Carradine puts in a cameo as a somewhat grouchy werewolf.  The special effects are spectacular – as they would be, coming from the mind of Rick Baker et al.  Oh, and there’s werewolf sex.  Animated werewolf sex.  Right.

Admittedly, a little of my current love for this film comes from the presence of Patrick Macnee (that’s TVs John Steed) who gives everything he’s in an edge of eminent class.  But the whole film has a marvelous combination of camp and legitimate horror.  The Howling is an indulgent, vitriolic bit of fun.