How early do you start cueing up the chiller classics?
If you’re like Chris Roberts, who last year joined me here to have Best Fiends Talk Horror Movies, you are screening them all year ‘round—but he really starts to spin the thriller platters as soon as the calendar hits October and heralds the Halloween season.
So, who else was I going to invite to this space to discuss horror movie marathons?
(That’s him at right in the picture above, and that’s me on the left; we’d offered a backstage photographer a preview of our big moment in a production of the Sondheim Sweeney Todd musical; Chris played vengeful barber Todd to my villainous pervert Judge Turpin, as I’d mentioned last time chronicling some of our extensive horror-based collaborations)
For this project, I offered up five movies I intended to watch prior to October 31st: The Old Dark House–because as I remarked previously in Here Comes the Rain Again, no horror film quite so well embodies that mythic mood of the “dark and stormy night…”; The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake—because its cheesy chills are a reminder of how I loved watching Dr. Shock as a kid; At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul –because this first of the Brazilian “Coffin Joe” pictures is a particularly devilish mix of retro charm and still-shocking subversiveness; Ganja & Hess—because if I’m going to watch a vampire movie, it’s going to be this incredibly unique, hallucinogenic flight of gonzo blaxploitation weirdness; and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary—because if I’m going to watch another vampire movie, it’s going to be Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s equally unique, silent-movie translation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s flamboyantly odd and phantasmagorical version of the Stoker tale.
Chris was then tasked with answering back with five picks of his own. The only request I made was that he perhaps not focus on the terribly obvious picks. He has delivered. I now turn the crypt over to him, with the very occasional editorial flourish from me appearing in this manner:
GDA: You’ve seen my picks. You’re up! What five fright flicks will you be sharing with our readers?
CR: Being completely obsessed with all manner of horror movies, it’s probably not much of a surprise to say that I really love Halloween. I don’t watch five scary movies to celebrate the holiday; I watch at least one horror film a day for the entire month of October! Truth be told, that makes this season pretty much like the rest of the year for me. For the last couple of weeks of September I try to avoid the genre just to make my headfirst dive into the macabre more eventful. On September 30 I settled down to watch The Seven Samurai. From then on, it’s ghosts and gore.
For my month long scare-a-thon I will pretty much delve into every subgenre under the horror umbrella, but to pick five for this list I will impose a couple of ground rules upon myself. I will only include titles that contain some supernatural elements. In its purest form, Halloween should be about the undead and demons rather than a knife wielding maniac. Not that I object to the slashers. I just choose to limit my selections to more fantastic antagonists. That said, I would open things up to include a killer who stalks his prey on All Hallow’s Eve…what a brilliant idea! I’ll have to look into that.
So before my keepers come to sedate me and take away my flies, I’d better get to my list.
The Old Dark House is certainly a fine, truly classic film. It is witty and atmospheric, contains brilliant performances all around and the usual genius directing turn from James Whale. However, when you come down to it, it lacks one crucial ingredient to be the perfect Halloween chiller: homicide. (I’m going to beg to differ here, as I believe its lack of homicide actually cements its greatness. But I intrude…) House of Frankenstein lacks any of that film’s sophistication, but at least it does have a body count. More importantly it contains not only Frankenstein’s Monster, but Dracula and the Wolf Man as well. Not sure which classic Universal monster you want to spend your holiday with? Why not get three all at once? The best part of the movie is the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal family after stints with Warner Brothers, Columbia, RKO, and even Monogram. He’s exceptionally sinister as Dr. Gustav Niemann, who escapes from the Neustadt Prison for the Criminally Insane when a violent storm blows up his cell walls. His partner in crime is the hunchbacked Daniel played by J. Carrol Naish, one of the great character actors of the 40’s. Also along for the ride are Glenn Strange as the Monster, Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot and John Carradine as Count Dracula. Carradine is acceptable in a rather thankless appearance as the vampire count, but a fan can’t help but to wish Universal had thrown Bela Lugosi a bone and invited him to don the cape for this one.
Like House of Frankenstein, with its collection of creatures for the indecisive viewer, portmanteau horror films are excellent choices in that you never have to commit too long to a story that you find lacking. Perhaps the next one will send shivers down your spine! In 1972, England’s Amicus Films gave Hammer a run for its money with the well-crafted Tales from the Crypt. Not to be confused with the cult favorite HBO anthology series from the 80’s, this film had no skeleton puppet to introduce each segment. This is Great Britain after all so we are given a hooded Sir Ralph Richardson as the Cryptkeeper. As with most anthologies, not every story is a masterpiece, but this one boasts some impressive treats, starring Richard Green and the always creepy Patrick Magee (apologies to Joan Collins and Ian Hendry for theirs are the weaker segments). Without doubt the most unsettling offering stars the legendary Peter Cushing in perhaps the most heartfelt and poignant role of his career.
Cushing plays Mr. Grimsdyke, a lonely widower whose sole joy comes from mending broken toys to give to the local children. What brings extra pathos home to the viewer is the knowledge that this was the first film Cushing made after the passing of his real life wife, Helen. His heartbreak is all over the screen. That said, a kindly elderly man is not the first thing that comes to mind when I want gripping terror. This sequence supplies that in its climax, but I won’t spoil it here. Let’s just say there are some shocking effects on display courtesy of fellow Hammer alum, makeup artist Roy Ashton.
It’s hard to convince these kids today that vampires aren’t lovelorn teenagers that sparkle. Everyone knows that they dance naked for spectators in tiger body paint. At least that’s what one does in 1972’s Vampire Circus, easily the oddest offering in the Hammer Films canon. It begins with the evil Count Mitterhaus seemingly vanquished, a stake plunged into his heart by the elders of the town of Stetl after seducing their daughters and killing their children. “The town of Stetl will die! Your children will die to give me back my liiiiiife!” he bellows with his last breath. That’s the last we hear from him for quite a while, but his followers make due on his promise for indeed we do see children killed and that’s always pretty shocking in any film.
The youth of Stetl are drawn into their clutches as a circus arrives much like the Pied Piper. Don’t expect a wacky clown car, either. “Why do you come?,” they are asked. “To steal the money from dead men’s eyes!,” cackles Adrienne Corri as the mistress of ceremonies. That should have been a pretty good indication of their intentions.
What follows is a grim, gruesome film with some real surreal touches that make Vampire Circus a unique dreamlike experience. Vampires draw two young boys into a mirror, lulling them into a state of bliss before sinking their strikingly long fangs into them. Those looking for a more prurient entertainment will be treated to copious nudity from nubile Hammer starlets and gore hounds will find this one of the studio’s more grisly efforts with the aftermath of a panther attack that would not seem out of place in an Italian cannibal flick and a very nasty decapitation by crossbow. Certainly this film is not everyone’s cup of tea. Those looking for Christopher Lee will be disappointed. Those looking for a more unusual vampire film should be intrigued. What more could you want? Ballet? (Yes.)
A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of attending an all-night festival of Italian splatter films. (Chris refers here to the second All-Nite Italian Splatterfest we attended at the Colonial Theatre, which also annually hosts the famous Blobfest) Although the entire event was just the kind of thing that really rings my bell I was struck by the fact that a few of the features weren’t especially splattery. 1985’s Demons would have fit the bill perfectly. As a matter of fact it is the epitome of Italian splatter.
Produced by the giallo master himself, Dario Argento, this balls-out completely deranged film was directed by Lamberto Bava, son of maestro Mario Bava. Almost the entire story takes place in a movie theater called the Metropol, apparently located in Berlin. The audience has accepted invitations to attend the screening of a mysterious horror film concerning a group of twenty-somethings who wander into the tomb of Nostradamus and manage to unleash vicious demons into the world and, thanks to a strange silver mask, the venue where the film itself is shown.
(I must pause here as it occurs to me that it is nearly impossible to summarize this plot! Imagine The Poseidon Adventure without a capsized cruise ship and Gene Hackman leading a ragtag group of survivors to a theater exit while dodging toothy, taloned, slobbering movie patrons turned maniacal demons. As in many Italian horror films of the 80’s, logic it not a strong suit and I think Demons is all the better for it. All I can say is thank God this theater had a display in its lobby containing both a gassed-up motorcycle and a samurai sword!)
Bava keeps the action going at a truly furious pace from practically the opening frames, but the real star of the show is special effects makeup genius Sergio Stivaletti, working one of his first jobs here like he was trying to prove something. Stivaletti has since gone on to work for Argento and others many times since and is still active today, but he has never topped Demons and Demons 2 for pure over-the-top, blood-and-guts mayhem. It would be a tour de force just for the sheer quantity of effects, but so many of the gags are a splendid gooey joy to watch. I’ve seen Demons many times and I sat through it again just before writing this. When the scene where a helicopter comes crashing through the ceiling of the movie theater arrives towards the end, I still find myself grinning with devilish glee.
I just watched this for the very first time because of your pick; it instantly became probably my favorite Italian horror movie of all time, until the very, very end…when it still became my favorite Italian horror movie of all time, but I was let down by…well, that’s a discussion for another day. Your final selection, faithful Igor?
Hello. Hello. Hello. I’ve got a message for you…and you’re not going to like it. Pray for death.
Those are the otherworldly last words of a research scientist before he disintegrates into a pile of cockroaches. It’s one of a handful of truly creepy set pieces in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. I’ve heard Prince of Darkness referred to as the “quantum physics horror movie.” Sure, the film’s team of scientists reference sub-atomic on a few occasions, but I couldn’t explain much of it here. It’s also known as “the one with Alice Cooper,” but that prince of darkness doesn’t have much to do. More accurately, this is best described as Carpenter’s tribute to cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and Nigel Kneale, the British writer best known for the creation of Professor Bernard Quatermass for film and television; Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Prince of Darkness under the alias Martin Quatermass and early in the film one member of the scientific team wears a sweatshirt with the name “KNEALE” printed on it.
It’s also dripping with so much goo, worms and insects it could be mistaken for a Lucio Fulci film! The story concerns a priest (Carpenter veteran Donald Pleasence) who summons a motley crew of physicists and grad students to the abandoned Saint Godard’s church to study a mysterious canister that houses a malignant glowing green liquid. The liquid has been under the watch of a sect of priests called the Brotherhood of Sleep. We discover the container has been carbon-dated to seven million years ago. It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that its purpose is to imprison Satan himself, who’s ready to make his entrance and release his father, the Anti-God, onto the world.
It can be heavy stuff, but I could do without some of the moments of comic relief that seem forced and distracting. The film is not perfect, but unsettling enough to stick in your head for a while after viewing. The dream sequences that are actually warnings of the dark one’s return, sent from the future, are worth particular mention for your creep-out factor. As usual, Carpenter scores the film with collaborator Alan Howarth and its synth rhythms throb and pulsate with his best work. We saw this together way back when and it’s the only film on this list I saw in its original theatrical run. I remember feeling disappointed at the time, but every time I see Prince of Darkness now it rises higher on my list of 80’s horror films. If only someone from the future sent me a message in 1987 to let me know how good this movie is.
I just had this vision of our younger selves being visited by our older selves. Not sure which version of us would be more shocked by the other. Brrrrr. With that scary notion in mind—Happy Halloween viewing!