Posts Tagged ‘horror films’

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)

Following a stressful week and a weekend (accidentally) full of rather hard-to-take horror films (reviews coming for those), I decided to take a brief respite from the horror of both real and imaginary worlds and instead have myself a nice slice of musical mayhem. Hence: Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s gleefully malevolent musical version of Roger Corman’s 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors. Based on the Off-Broadway show by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Oz’s film serves up a delicious serving of terror with a story about a boy, a girl, and a man-eating plant.

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) is a sad but sweet little schlub living down on Skid Row, where he works at his adoptive father Mr. Mushnik’s (Vincent Gardenia) run-down flower shop, alongside lovely colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene). Desperate for customers, Seymour suggests bringing in something a bit weird: an odd little plant he picked up from a Chinese flower shop during a total eclipse. The plant works its magic, and Mushnik’s Flower Shop is suddenly overrun with customers, while Seymour and the plant become local celebrities. Unfortunately, the little plant has some “odd” tastes – it will only consume human blood. Seymour appeases his pet’s bloodlust with his own stock for a while, but as the plant grows, so does its appetite.

The film is underscored by a number of rollicking songs, many of them introduced by a Greek chorus of doo-wop girls, who make commentary on the proceedings. Things really get going when Steve Martin appears as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, gleefully indulging in a scene-chewing performance. But the whole film is just lots of solidly good fun – from Rick Moranis’s impassioned belting of “Skid Row” at the beginning, to Ellen Greene’s romantic vision of suburban life with “Somewhere That’s Green.” Moranis is predictably sweet as a decent man seduced by a, um, plant, but Greene is a standout, pushing away from the dumb blonde trope to craft a fully realized and deeply sympathetic character. She’s always been in love with Seymour, but doesn’t think that she deserves a good man.

But admittedly, the best songs are reserved for the man-eating plant Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, who starts out as a cute little sucker and grows into a, ahem, mean green mother from outer space. Audrey II really is an engineering feat – a plant that’s not only massive, but has a massive personality, a deliciously nasty villain encouraging Seymour’s reluctant rampage. If you didn’t think a plant could look evil, think again.

Little Shop of Horrors really is the best of the 1980s, featuring some great comedians – including John Candy and Bill Murray in bit parts – and some even better practical effects, courtesy of Lyle Conway and Oz’s team of puppeteers and designers. Part sci-fi spoof and all-musical, Little Shop of Horrors now gets added to my pantheon of Halloween musicals to return to every year. I can’t believe that it has taken me this long.

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

After the sad loss of Tobe Hooper this year, I realized that, much to my horror-watching shame, I had seen the mainstream film he’s best known for but not, alas, the film that cemented him in the pantheon of horror masters. I’ve avoided The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mostly because I am not a fan of chain saws or cannibalism or hillbilliesploitation. But could I truly call myself a horror fan if I didn’t at least make the attempt? So, out of respect for Mr. Hooper and his undoubted contribution to the genre, I finally filled this gap in my lexicon.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre deals with five hippie-esque youths taking a ride through Texas one hot summer day. They’re there to investigate the possible vandalism of the grave of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty’s grandfather. Assured that their grandfather still dead and buried, the group decide to visit the old home of the Hardestys. On the way, they pick up a creepy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who tells them about how his family used to work for the local slaughterhouse (foreshadowing!), and pass the local gas station/barbecue joint, where the proprietor (Jim Siedow) tells them there’s no gas to be had. The group arrives at the homestead and then make their way (severally) across to the neighboring house, where they think they might be able to barter for some gas to fill up their van. And it’s there, in a deceptively attractive farmhouse, that all hell breaks loose.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is nothing short of a feverish nightmare, right from the start. It opens with shots of desiccated corpses and just gets more profane from there. The Texas heat melts the screen, the five leads are plenty weird even before being pursued by cannibalistic hillbillies, and there are ample moments in which to shout “Don’t go in there!” Of course, they do go in there, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a film. Leatherface’s (Gunnar Hansen) introduction is shocking and explains why he’s right up there with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. For its extremely low-budget, the film is incredibly effective in the first two acts, ramping up the tension before unleashing a surprisingly bloodless hellfire on the viewer.

At the same time, I found it difficult, at least on first viewing, to really get into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s one of those films that was shocking in 1974, and has its own nightmarish brilliance even now. There are genuine scares, and several scenes that had me peeking through my fingers. But by the time we get to the final act, I was getting a little tired of hearing Sally scream and Leatherface squeal. There’s little explanation as to how this family of cannibals have managed to operate for as long as they evidently have, where the women are at, or why they, uh, began eating people in the first place. For once I wanted a little more exposition, or at least some dire warnings from townspeople that the hippies ignore. The brutality of the film is intense and effective, yes, but the deaths needed more build-up and, preferably, less screaming.

Yet I cannot discard The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s an admirable work of horror and incredibly influential. Hooper’s undoubted talent as a director elevates it from pure schlock – it’s exploitative on many levels, but it’s also so artistically shot and constructed that it’s impossible to dismiss. Did I like it? No, not really. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to. I certainly don’t ever want to eat sausages again.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Ah! ‘Tis the most wonderful time of the year, as numerous people have already quipped on Twitter. Here in New York, the leaves are (gradually) changing and the nights are (very slowly) getting colder. It’s definitely Pumpkin Spice season at Trader Joe’s, even more so at Starbucks, and so that means that it’s time for some good (and some not-so-good) scary movies. This year my intention is to watch some new (to me) horror films, filling in the gaps of my horror vocab and perhaps adding a few new favorites. First up is a film that I unfortunately missed in theaters: Mike Flanagan’s throwback horror Ouija: Origin of Evil.

As its title suggests, this is actually a prequel, though I went into it not having seen the original 2014 Ouija. And this one stands on its own pretty well, although my later researches indicate that there’s quite a bit that might have been spoiled here if I’d seen the original. Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in 1967 Los Angeles, in the home of the Zanders, where mother Alice (Elizabeth Rasser), teenage daughter Paulina (Annalise Basso), and child Doris (Lulu Wilson) make a difficult living performing séances for people seeking to connect to spirits of the dearly departed. They’re charlatans, of course, but well-meaning ones – Alice says that they’re not really lying, just giving closure and hope to people who need it. Lina and Doris’s father died several years before, and Alice is beginning to have difficulty making ends meet. Doris is bullied at school, Lina is tired of feeling unmoored, and Alice has a minor crush on the school principal Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas). Enter the cursed board game, to first save the day and then make life really terrible. After playing Ouija with her friends one evening, Lina suggests that her mother incorporate it into their séance routine. Alice takes it to heart and buys the game, but soon Doris becomes obsessed with it, claiming that she can actually talk to people, including her father, on the other side.

Ouija: Origin of Evil hits some delicious scares, especially during the first two acts. This is a jump-scare film, trading on things glimpsed just out of the corner of the eye, figures lurking in doorways, and sheets slowly sliding off beds, with long pauses right before something slams into the back of your head. As the film progresses, the haunting ramps up, with Doris eventually going full Damien as her interaction with the other side becomes more pronounced. Lulu Wilson, by the way, acquits herself admirably in the evil child role. There’s one memorable scene between her and Lina’s boyfriend Michael (Parker Mack) that is as wonderfully creepy as anything in The Omen. The entire film pays generous homage to haunted house films of the 1970s – The Amityville HorrorThe Changeling, and Burnt Offerings come immediately to mind – but without depending on referentiality. This feels like a 70s horror film, down to the use of soundtrack and the un-ironic 70s styles.

The denouement is where the film falters, showing far too much of its hand all at once with a rather complex and repulsive revelation that includes, um, Nazis. I never find this kind of horror particularly scary – just nauseating. Yes, there’s rusted medical devices, a creepy backstory, and ghosts a-plenty, but somehow the ending just doesn’t land. The final scenes set up for the sequel – or the original – but they feel a bit perfunctory. The film is working too hard to clearly link to the original and would have been better served to be something that stood steadily on its own.

But Ouija: Origin of Evil is still one of the most solid mainstream entries into the genre that I’ve recently seen. While indie horror is on the rise, it’s good to see that mainstream horror films – polished and focus grouped – can still bring the scares. Watch it for the first two acts, if nothing else.

 

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Thanks to Shudder, I’ve had the opportunity to watch some really excellent horror films that I’d probably never have even heard of, and many that I’d have never had the stomach to rent. And while I admit that my J-horror education has been sorely lacking, at least I have experienced the power of both Ju-on and Ringu, as well as their American counterparts. But Noroi: The Curse is an animal all its own, and in some ways a better film than either Ju-on or Ringu – a sharply made, very frightening found footage feature.

The Curse opens with several titles explaining that the film was put together from footage shot by documentary filmmaker Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who vanished after his home burned to the ground with his wife Keiko inside.  Kobayashi investigated paranormal activity around Japan, this time focusing on the story of Junko Ishii (Tomono Kuga) and her son, whom Kobayashi meets after a neighbor claims to hear strange noises coming from their house. The film builds slowly as Kobayashi investigates Ishii, who suddenly vanishes, and intercuts this footage with the experience of actress Marika Matsumoto (playing herself), who comes into contact with a malevolent spirit while appearing on a “ghost hunters” TV show. Meanwhile, a young girl named Kana Yano (Rio Kanno) appears on a psychic program and then disappears after being visited by a man in a tinfoil hat, whom Kobayashi eventually tracks down. As the narratives intersect in Kobayashi’s film, the horrible story of the curse begins to come to light.

Noroi: The Curse is a slow-burner of a horror film, far less dependent on visual scares than similar J-horror films. The effect is more psychological, allowing glimpses out of the corner of the eye, shadows across walls, and weird occurrences in the middle of the night. It plays like a documentary, a very precisely constructed narrative meant to elucidate the investigation of the paranormal, rather than a horror movie. As the narrative begins to take shape, with repetition of events and the slow reveal of what the curse even is, the film increases the tension. It blurs the line between documentary reality and fiction in casting an actress playing herself, and showcasing Japanese tabloid shows as part of the revelation of old evil. In that, it significantly predates films like Paranormal Activity, which rely on the same blurring of lines and slow-burn myth-making, rather than grotesque images, to strike fear into the heart.

The slow pacing of The Curse and the complex storyline that has to bring together several apparently disparate strands of narrative might turn off some horror viewers, who prefer their terror more straightforward. But I must admit that this is exactly the kind of horror movie that I love. The tension is there, but it builds slowly, the frames packed with meaning and little clues to the interconnectedness of the stories. Japanese horror films in general take a very different view of ghosts from many Western films, emphasizing the carrying over of demons and ghosts across generations and among people apparently unrelated. There’s a sense of inevitability, of a horror that cannot be put down or escaped but that must simply be accepted, because it’s going to get you eventually. What’s more, it will keep going, through the generations, a testament to the hubris of human beings.

The Curse surprised me in how thoughtful it was, and how dedicated to really creating the illusion of a documentary film put together after the death of its filmmaker. As the pieces of The Curse begin to fit together, the horror comes fully home, but it’s the build-up that’s really delightful, the slow and measured construction of real terror.

Noroi: The Curse is available to watch on Shudder. 

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

13 Ghosts (1960)

It’s easy to get so caught up in the gimmickry of William Castle that one almost forgets that he made seriously enjoyable films. 13 Ghosts is one of his finest, and one that most clearly exploits the marrying of gimmickry and supernatural that Castle enjoyed so much.

The story opens with paleontologist Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) being willed a house by his uncle Plato, a scientist and master of the occult. The house is a godsend for the impoverished Cyrus and his family, including youngest boy Buck (Charles Herbert), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp). They move in immediately, despite warnings from Zorba’s lawyer Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner) that the house is inhabited by 12 very nasty ghosts, captured by Zorba using a special set of goggles. Strange things begin happening straight away as the ghosts reveal themselves and plague the newly arrived family.

As with many of Castle’s films, 13 Ghosts mixes a carnival-esque atmosphere of jump-scares and gimmicks into its haunting tale. Despite the warnings about the house, and the subsequent hauntings, the Zorbas actually begin to get comfortable in their new abode. Buck, already obsessed with ghosts, enjoys experiencing the supernatural firsthand, and begins learning about the ghosts’ pasts from the housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton), Zorba’s housekeeper and occult assistant. The ghosts float in and out of view, appearing as faded apparitions that engage with the human world in weird and occasionally destructive ways. Castle’s gimmick, in this one, is Illusion-O, a sort of semi-3D type of viewing goggles that allowed viewers to “see” the ghosts more starkly through red-filtered goggles. The ghosts are still there even without the goggles, but Castle pushed the concept of Illusion-O for the people willing to brave the terror.

Even without the gimmick, 13 Ghosts holds up quite well as a half-comedic, quirky little horror film that embraces its personal campiness. The idea of being able to capture ghosts by seeing them is a fascinating one (and predates Ghostbusters by more than twenty years), but the film doesn’t dwell for too long on the unpleasantness of the ghosts’ pasts, nor on their reasons for continuing to be tied to earth. They’re apparitions, leave-overs from unfinished lives, not in need of being fully fleshed. But their backgrounds are still appropriately gruesome, from an Italian chef doomed to murder his wife and her lover over and over again, to a headless lion tamer (plus lion) constantly searching for his head.

It’s the human beings that live with them who are really interesting, and it’s here that the film lives up to Castle’s strange standards. The Zorba family are oddballs, handling their haunted home with tongues firmly in cheek–in fact, they more than once recall the family Oscar Wilde created in his comic ghost story The Canterville Ghost. Woods and DeCamp make for a great onscreen husband and wife, a sort of slightly kinky Ward and June Cleaver, but a lot of the focus goes to Charles Herbert as Buck, played with a combination of innocence and a small edge of childish ghoulishness. Margaret Hamilton’s small but effective role gives a little shot of metanarrative, as Buck occasionally asks her if she’s really a witch, a neat complement to Buck’s obsession with ghost stories that opens the film. There are further references to the gimmickry of the supernatural, including a devilishly enjoyable use of an Ouija board, which was once again gaining popularity as a game in the early 60s.

The practical effects used both in the appearances of the ghosts themselves, and on the moving candles, shattering milk jugs, and flying cleavers, hold up brilliantly even now. It’s hard to tell how effective (or not) Castle’s Illusion-O concept would have been, but the film happily works without the gimmick. There’s much that Castle is dealing with here, about turning spirits and the spirit world into things for entertainment or experimentation (or just the source of old-fashioned human greed) without fully understanding or respecting them. Under the carnival facade is a more serious treatment of the spirit world than appears on the surface–you just might need Illusion-O to find it.

13 Ghosts is available to stream on Shudder.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

Horror filmmaking continues into its renaissance, thanks in large part to a burgeoning indie scene that has dragged the genre back from the mainstream and given voice to writers, directors, and productions that would otherwise have none (read: it ain’t just straight white dudes running the show any more). Today, A24 adds to their formidable indie cred with the release of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a fascinating little horror movie from the mind of Osgood Perkins.

Set in a Catholic girls’ boarding school somewhere in Bramford, NY, The Blackcoat’s Daughter focuses on classmates Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), whose parents fail to show up to pick them up for a week’s vacation. While Kat is convinced that her parents are dead, Rose attempts to reassure her, but has problems of her own. Left alone in the school, with the sole exception of two nuns, bizarre things begin to happen, and it becomes apparent that the girls are not totally alone, the hallways stalked by something not quite human. Their story is intercut with Joan (Emma Roberts), a girl who arrives at a bus station in the dead of winter and is given a ride by Bill (James Remar) and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly) to Bramford.

The film cannily avoids revealing too much of its hand at once by constructing a three-pronged tale from varying perspectives, intercutting the experiences of Rose, Kat, and Joan without offering too much introduction or explanation. Just what is happening, and why, only becomes apparent with the piecing together of narratives and minor, apparently throwaway lines. Because of this, the initial half hour of the film might feel disjointed and directionless, but as it all begins to come together, you realize that there was indeed a method at work.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has much in common with other films that involve devilish hauntings – and bears more than a passing resemblance, visually and thematically, to The Exorcist and The Witch. Yet it is also, fundamentally, about loneliness, and about the lengths to which people will go to escape from the isolation of their lives. The girls are isolated, physically and metaphorically. The inherent loneliness of their situation is rendered palpable by their surroundings, and the horrors that they face become almost inevitable in their enforced isolation – even the blankets on their beds look cold and inappropriate for the weather. The only source of real heat, and color, on the screen is the furnace in the school’s basement – a chilling symbol, in fact, as the significance of the furnace becomes clearer. The storytelling technique here meshes brilliantly with the stark, almost black and white cinematography (and, having lived through numerous Central NY winters, I can safely say that the depiction is pretty much spot-on).

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a fascinating film, another excellent indie horror that frightens without relying on major jump scares or buckets of blood (there is blood, but it’s late in the day and it’s very effective). While it doesn’t quite live up to the multiple layers of A24’s similar production The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter does bring an oblique terror all its own.