Posts Tagged ‘horror films’

Grabbers (2012)

After reading way too much about Harvey Weinstein, I decided that I needed to see a movie about a different kind of eldritch monster from the depths of the ocean. So I popped on Grabbers, about a little Irish town menaced by octopean monstrosities with a way better weakness than those water-hating aliens in Signs.

Grabbers introduces us to a sweet little village on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. It’s home to exactly two police officers: Ciaran O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and the newly arrived Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). He’s an alcoholic, she’s a workaholic, and so romance will of course be in the offing. When hundred of sea creatures wash up on the beach, the Garda get involved to figure out just what the hell is happening just in time for people to begin vanishing left and right. Meanwhile, one of the many local drunks Paddy (Lalor Roddy) traps an ugly sea monster and takes it home. Dubbing it a “grabber” after it tries to eat him, he carts the creature off to the local biologist, Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey), who proclaims that it’s not quite of this world. But Paddy has discovered the creature’s weakness: it lives on blood, and Paddy’s blood alcohol level was so high when it attacked him that he literally poisoned the thing. The only solution to surviving the creatures, then, is to get roaring drunk.

Grabbers is just an incredibly fun, incredibly Irish little monster movie, with some effective monstrosities to cut through the comedy, and a massive drink-up at the film’s center. The conceit is amusing, of course, and the film carries it off well, building to the revelations of the monsters and how to defeat them with deprecating humor and a charming self-awareness. There are a few plot holes, but that’s all right – I don’t really watch monster movies for the story structure. The romance angle is sweet as well, with a hilarious scene in which a very drunk Lisa explains O’Shea’s life story to him. Grabbers also posits the question of how roaring drunk people can possibly fight vicious aliens, and does so in some hilarious (and gruesome) ways.

I’ve seen very few humorous Halloween movies this year, which is always a mistake. Grabbers was a wonderful distraction from the occasional darkness of the holiday, a reminder that tales of terror need not be soul-crushing. Sit down, have a pint, and prepare to wrestle the tentacled nasties until final call.

Grabbers is available to stream on Shudder.

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Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)

In the pantheon of witch movies, I was surprised that I hadn’t ever heard of Burn, Witch, Burn, a sharp-edged little Gothic film from 1962, directed by Stanley Hayers from a script by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (!). The film has plenty of B-grade bonafides, but it’s not a B-grade film – and features Peter Wyngarde in perhaps his least scene-chewing performance ever.

Wyngarde is Norman Taylor, a psychology professor at an unspecified British university who specializes in superstitions and belief systems. He’s recently returned from Jamaica with his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) and up for a major promotion at the university. Norman is intensely rationalistic, however, claiming that superstition is a matter of belief and not reality – in order for witchcraft to work, you have to believe it will work. This comes into conflict when he discovers that Tansy is a practitioner of “conjure magic,” which she learned in Jamaica. She’s been leaving talismans about the house with the hope of influencing events and protecting herself and her husband. Furious, Norman makes Tansy burn all of the talismans, and unsurprisingly, things start to go horribly wrong.

I went into Burn, Witch, Burn expecting a schlocky witch movie, and I got something far more interesting (though still schlocky). Yes, the usual questions of belief vs. rationality are still there, but the main focus of the film is actually the depth of Tansy’s love for Norman, and vice versa, which leads to her sacrificing her superstition and him, eventually, his rationality. Female intuition and superstition comes into conflict with male “logic,” and the logic begins to break down very quickly. Norman’s logic begins to pale in comparison to Tansy’s beliefs – and whether they are simply psychological games she plays or whether they are true spells begins not to matter. There’s a marvelous showdown nearing the end of the film where Norman’s own beliefs are challenged, one after the other, as he fights to preserve Tansy’s life.

But Burn, Witch, Burn is also gorgeously photographed, calling to mind the more polished Gothic horrors of the same period, such as The Innocents and The Haunting. Hayers has a good eye, making use of the canted angles and deep focus shots, combined with real locations, that make the Gothic real and physically disconcerting. The camera eye melds the concepts of reality and belief, as the viewer begins to see what Tansy and Norman see, drawing into question the existence of the supernatural and rendering it tangible. That notion is disconcerting and Burn, Witch, Burn makes excellent use of it not only through the overt thematics of plot and dialogue, but through the camera eye itself.

All of that being said, Burn, Witch, Burn, as its title suggests, isn’t exactly a nuanced work of horror. Wyngarde is known for his ham acting, and while he’s more subdued here than in practically anything else, there’s still a hefty serving of bacon. But he’s matched in madness by his co-stars – Janet Blair and Judith Scott, in a bit part, especially. Because the plot is just this side of campy, the overacting is easily forgiven, though the wild-eyed shrieking of some characters nearing the end becomes just a bit wearing.

While it never reaches the heights of similarly themed films from the same period, Burn, Witch, Burn does merit more than a cursory glance. The 1960s marked new interest in witchcraft not just as a force of evil, but as a multi-faceted form of magic and belief just as complex, in its own way, as any major religion. While the moralism isn’t lost here, it is beginning to wobble. Witches aren’t for burning any more.

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.

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.