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.     


Bloody October: Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein

LAST NIGHT: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite horror-comedy – yes, even before Ghostbusters.  It also scared the crap out of me when I was about seven.  My father decided to show it to me because it was the film that proved to him that monsters were something to laugh at.  And what effect did it have on me? Well, Dracula climbed out of his coffin and I ran screaming from the room.  This was further exacerbated by the fact that we lived in an old Victorian townhouse on 9 acres of woods that was regularly infested by bats.  My father spent the rest of the evening trying to convince me that Dracula wasn’t real and that he was not going to turn into a bat and suck my blood.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein still gives me chills, but that’s mostly a result of that childhood experience.  In the adult world, it’s simply an entertaining film, especially for those who enjoy the original Universal Monsters.  Because they’re all here! The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man – the latter two played by the actors who originated them.  The plot revolves around the resurrection of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who has plans to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a crazy doctor who eventually loses some blood to the Count.  The crux? Old Franky needs a new brain and he’ll find it in the head of Wilbur (Lou Costello) a dull-witted baggage clerk.  Opposing the gruesome ghouls is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who keeps turning into a wolf – that full moon lasts an awfully long time.

The monsters play it fairly straight while Abbott and Costello ham it up around them – but they’re all game.  Lugosi in particular seems to be enjoying the chance to play his most iconic role and spout lines like “What we need today is young blood … and brains.”  I only wish that Karloff would have agreed to reprise his role as the Monster.

I think the reason this kind of freaked me out when I was a kid was the fact that the whole film turns on the notion that monsters really do exist:

Chick (Bud Abbott): I know there’s no search a person as Dracula.  You know there’s no such a person as Dracula.

Wilbur: But does Dracula know it?

The comedy is broad, the plot nonsensical, and the film is deliciously fun.  But honestly, it kept me believing in monsters.

Bloody October: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

LAST NIGHT: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

I’m really behind on these, ’cause I definitely watched this one last Friday.  Anyways:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  This is one of those films that you either love and indulge in, or you sit there for two hours going: what the fuck is happening? The bare bones of the plot cannot do justice to the supreme campiness of Rocky Horror. Newly engaged young people in Denton, Ohio,  Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) have their car break down on a back road and – of course – wind up in a creepy castle with even creepier inhabitants. Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite mad scientist, his lovely assistants Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Little Nell), and butler Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) have come together to throw a party and premiere Frank’s newest (and sexiest) creation Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). Brad and Janet have no idea what they’ve gotten into.

There are simply no words. References to 50s and 60s horror films abound, Meat Loaf makes an appearance to sing a song and get murdered; complicated sexuality reigns supreme.  There’s violence, sex, nudity and rock music. Tim Curry is the sexiest transvestite ever, the music is over the top, the ending beyond bizarre.  At the end of the day, Rocky Horror is what Robin Wood would call an ‘incoherent text’.  It begins to ramble in the second act, and finally explodes in the third.  But in between it is so much fun that you just have to sit back and, well, give yourself over to absolute pleasure.

Watching it again reminded me of some parties I’ve gone to: it all begins with a lot of fun, drinking and dancing and ends with the Apocalypse.  Still, you know that you want to do the Time Warp again.

Bloody October: The Wolf Man

Last Night: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Poor puppy.  The Wolf Man is the saddest of the Universal Monsters, a woefully misunderstood creature who can’t help what he does and just needs his daddy to love him.  Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his family castle in … well, I think it’s England, but the accents are all over the place.  His father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) is a kindly but distant fellow who loved Larry’s elder brother much more than his big, cuddly and sad-eyed younger boy.  Larry instantly falls for the pretty girl in the window Gwen (Evelyn Ankers).  But of course, he gets bit by a gypsy werewolf (Bela Lugosi, underused) and descends into the netherworld where he can no longer control his animal urges.

The Wolf Man is the iconic werewolf film, referenced in every single werewolf movie since, and Lon Chaney Jr. is the perfect werewolf.  He’s a large but gentle man, sad-eyed and generous, and does not deserve what becomes of him.  Which is exactly the point.  Unlike many of the wolf men who come after him, Larry really is just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He’s bitten only because he tries to help a girl, and no one will believe him when he claims to be a danger to himself and others.  The other characters are all archetypes: the hunter (Patric Knowles), the policeman (Ralph Bellamy) and the doctor (Warren William).  The film plays like a gothic fairytale, down to the little old gypsy woman and her poem about pure hearts and wolf bane.  The Wolf Man is a late Universal film, but it deserves to rank up there with Dracula and Frankenstein.

Bloody October: The Exorcist

Last Night: THE EXORCIST (1973)

I’m a terrible horror fan.  26 years old and I had never seen The Exorcist until this week.  Terrible.  I blame the educational system.

You know the plot, but to reiterate: Regan (Linda Blair), a pretty normal adolescent girl and daughter of an actress (Ellen Burstyn), is possessed by … well, by Satan, apparently, although I have my doubts.  Call in Father Damian (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to exorcise the demon.

The Exorcist is one of those films that I fear has not aged terribly well.  This is not to say that it’s not a great film – it is.  The performances are uniformly excellent, the special effects spectacular for their time period, the script intelligent (and humorous), and the directing above standard.  But for all that, I must admit that I did not find it particularly scary.  The scares have been done so many times, in parody and out of it, that I saw them coming a mile away.  Regan’s spinning head and vomiting green goo are both pretty freaky in terms of effects, but not in terms of scariness.  More troubling is her tendency to swear at everyone and stab herself with a crucifix, but even that, while shocking, is not particularly frightening. What’s more, I was never convinced that this was really Satan.   Doesn’t the Prince of Darkness have better things to do than inhabit a little girl’s body? Shouldn’t he be trying to overthrow the world, or bring about the Apocalypse, or teach people at crossroads how to play guitar?

Perhaps the point is that it’s not Satan, but just a rather mischievous demon who got bored.  In any case, it’s a great film, but it failed to give me even a single bad dream.  I must admit that I expect more from the Fiend.  At least some more colorful curses than just telling priests to fuck off.