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August 29, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #191 - Hellraiser

When I'm asked to explain how I can watch horror movies - usually by someone who insists that they just can't (not won't) watch them - I often state that seeing unthinkable acts and disgusting images on screen is something that can make me feel stronger in my day-to-day life. Some people have trouble seeing the line between art and reality - look at all those silly arguments about violence or sex in movies causing real life violence or sex - but I've survived a lifetime as a horror fan because I always remember that the screen I'm watching the movie on is quite literally an impermeable barrier. I'm on one side of it, whatever I see or experience is on the other side, and there is no damage that the things on the other side can do to me.
This is a rather simple theory - I'm sure that if I watched footage of real people being murdered all day it would probably test my sanity, and filmmakers have done an increasingly good job of mimicking reality over the years - but I'm a rather simple man. Drawing that line in the sand allows me to push myself to view the strangest and most intense things on film, and as long as I remember that I'm in control of my side of the screen I am safe. That doesn't mean I'm putting up a wall to what the movie has to offer - I have to let some of what I see effect me if I really want to get the most out of it - it just means that I am aware enough to keep myself grounded while I experience the film.
It's funny to me that the first movie I think of when I discuss this belief is one that revolves around a device that opens the barrier between reality and depravity. But that film, Hellraiser, is a film that always makes me think about how important it is to maintain a distance between myself and whatever evils might be on the other side.
It would be easy to talk about the evil in Hellraiser by looking at the Cenobites, the group of disfigured demons who exist in the film's version of hell and make their way into reality by the film's conclusion, but that's a short sighted view of what Hellraiser has to offer. Evil is present in Hellraiser from the very beginning of the film, and Barker makes sure that we are at least slightly uncomfortable with everyone and everything in the film.
After the film establishes the infamous puzzle box (known to us horror purists as The Lament Configuration, though I'm not sure that phrase is used in the first film) and what it can do in the opening scenes, Barker introduces the family at the center of his story - and it's really easy to dislike them. Andrew Robinson, who is most recognizable as the Zodiac Scorpio killer from Dirty Harry, plays Larry, the husband/father at the center of the story, and his actions are actually those of a decent guy - he's a loyal husband, he loves his daughter, and he's trying to make the most out of this crappy old house he's inherited. At the same time, he just seems slimy. I'm sure this is part of why Robinson was cast - especially with what he's asked to do late in the film - but even when he's playing the nice guy early in the film it's difficult to trust him.

It's possible we feel that way about him because he's married to Julia, played by Clare Higgins, who is established immediately as a frigid creature who had a torrid affair with her husband's brother, Frank.  Barker takes the time to show us how this affair began - to me it appears that Frank forces the issue and Julia develops an addiction to his dominance - which develops Frank as a hedonistic pleasure seeker and Julia as someone who will also give her self willingly to fulfill her needs. Julia also has Larry in her pocket, and there's a recurring theme of him offering to do things for her while she reciprocates nothing toward him.  Barker perfectly sums this up when she seems repulsed by the religious icons their inherited home, and Larry instantly discards them with the trash - almost inviting evil into this home.
The most innocent character in the film is Larry's daughter Kirsty, played by Ashley Laurence, but she seems more like a lost puppy than a strong character in the film. She is the first to confront the evil forces in the film - both the resurrected Frank and the Cenobites - and nothing about her reaction to them makes her seem like someone who has the ability to stand against evil. Most horror films that provide an escape from reality are based around a force who can stand against evil, but the only thing Kirsty can do when she is faced with the Cenobites is to be an informant and offer her evil Uncle in exchange for her own life. When I look at Kirsty against other final girls of the era - Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind - there's not a lot to like about her.
Most people scoff at a film where none of the characters seem to be a force for good, but to me this is a key part of Barker's attempt to make Hellraiser uncomfortable from start to finish. These characters are surrounded by grimy and gross images, with the camera focusing in on things like dirt-filled fingernails and bowls of rotten food and maggots, throughout the film. These images set the tone for the blood splatter that will follow, and when we do see hooks rip the flesh of the Lament Configuration's victims the camera is as close to the action as possible. I've seen Hellraiser more times than I'd like to admit, and I still find that it has more moments - both gory and just plain gross - that make me look away from the screen than almost any horror movie out there.
So, to sum it up, we've got a film about people who do evil things in grimy places that features multiple grisly murders, one hedonist who is bloodily reanimated from the inside out, and a force of demons that are disfigured and modified for maximum grossness.  There's nothing to like about the characters, it's hard to watch without experience physical discomfort, and the only thing it accomplishes is that it unleashes hell on the people who deserve it. (OK, it also has one of the best musical scores of any horror movie ever made. That's a real redeeming quality of it) And somewhere inside that film, I find peace.
The short version of what I was saying just then is that Hellraiser is a story about people who don't recognize the figurative barrier between good and evil. And that leads to them crossing the literal barrier between their reality and a pure, evil reality. Whenever I watch Hellraiser, I realize that I am strong enough to know the difference between good and evil. Is it bad that it takes this much depravity to help me see that? Maybe, but that's a different story for a different day. At the end of this day Hellraiser strikes me as an inspiring work of art, because there's a beautiful feeling that I get after I sink deep into its world and come out safe on the other side. Pinhead might tell me it's "a waste of good suffering", but he's on the other side of that screen. He has no power over me.

August 23, 2013

You're Next

(2013, Dir. by Adam Wingard.)

The bar of expectations has been set pretty high for You're Next, a film that debuted on the festival circuit in 2011, was lauded as a great new horror film, and then was bought up by Lionsgate - who promptly put it on a shelf for nearly two years. But, now that the film has finally seen a release - a wide release, at that, which already makes this a huge win for independent horror - I'm ecstatic to confirm that there's definitely something special about You're Next.

From the writer/director team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (who wowed me with the dramatic horror tale A Horrible Way to Die and had their hands in the anthology hit V/H/S), the film tells the story of a large family that meets in a secluded country home to celebrate an anniversary and be systematically killed off by a trio of invaders in animal masks. (They obviously didn't plan for the latter, but it wouldn't be a horror movie if the characters' plans went just right.)  When I saw A Horrible Way To Die I noted that these filmmakers managed to bring a fresh approach to the torture-centered horror formula that has been popular of late, thanks to their focus on character and desire to create characters before killing them, and You're Next definitely succeeds in the same way.

The cast is pretty fantastic within Barrett and Wingard's film. It's led, for all intents and purposes, by a young Austrailain actress named Sharni Vinson, who plays the girlfriend of one of the sons and proves to be more than just a pretty face in a crisis. She's surrounded by many friends and associates of the filmmakers, including the same trio that carried A Horrible Way to Die (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Amy Seimetz, each of whom has been heavily involved in the independent horror community both in front of and behind the camera), plus two experienced talents as the parents of this clan, Rob Moran and horror icon Barbara Crampton.  The fact that so many of the characters have experience directing horror must have made the process easier for all involved, but it's also worth noting that the actors all seem comfortable in their roles and definitely don't take anything away from the film. Small roles by other directors (like The House of the Devil's Ti West and The Last Winter's Larry Fessenden) should make horror nuts smile, and one sequence discussing underground film festivals had me laughing out loud when the character played by Swanberg (who particularly stands out as a performer in the film) dismisses the indie scene at the dinner table.

You're Next isn't exactly a character piece, but it doesn't jump straight into the fire without giving us reasons to think about who these people are and why they're here. We learn little pieces about each character through the family interactions early in the film, and most of these little reveals have an effect on how things play out once the assailants make their move on this family. The initial onslaught from the killers is handled fantastically, and I was shocked or surprised several times once the attack began. There are a few surprising moments of brutality that I think will stand up next to some of the great shocks in horror history, and I even found that the film's "anything goes at any time" approach reminded me of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  There are at least four or five moments in the first half of the film that honestly caught me off guard, which four or five more than most horror movies I see can claim.

The intensity is so great throughout the first forty minutes of the film that it's almost a given that there's going to be a slight let down. I won't go in to plot details, but there's definitely a point where a revelation occurs and the tone of the film shifts strongly. That doesn't mean the film loses its edge, but the knowledge that the viewer gains at this point takes a little bit of the unpredictability out of the film. Wingard and Barrett still keep the film moving at a pace that had me on the edge of my seat and still offer plenty of brutal (and sometimes cathartic) violence, which means that the film doesn't really suffer too much. But I couldn't help thinking that the film explained away to much too early, and that there might have been a few more white-knuckle moments if the film hadn't given away a little information.

But the change in tone - which may have just occurred in my head, who am I to tell you what tone you'll get from the film? - is only a minor quibble with the film. The characters that we spend the most time with - particularly Vinson and Bowen - are wonderfully realized and You're Next always keeps us engaged in what's going on. After the early tension and the mid-film action it is a relief that the final scenes seem to sum up everything perfectly, which is just another reason to be impressed by the vision these filmmakers had for their film. Questions in our head get answered, but the film still manages to move on at a pace that kept me anticipating the bloody twist that was going to happen next.

I slept on the movie to collect my thoughts after the late night screening, and all day long I've been grinning about how much fun I had watching this bloody story unfold in front of me. Those who crave horror that is both brutal and intelligent should definitely see this one as soon as possible, and they should also be prepared to look over their shoulder a few times on the way home. You're Next might get under your skin, and if it doesn't I'm willing to bet it will at least give you a few good thrills.


August 22, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #190 - X-Ray

Whenever I think I have the slasher genre figured out, something like X-Ray comes along and reminds me what I reluctantly love about these little pieces of horror trash. It's a formula that was abused and recycled so much in the first half of the 1980s, and yet once in a while the pieces just come together right and something ridiculous just becomes that perfect diversion.  This one, originally titled Hospital Massacre, fits that description perfectly.
Playing off several of the slasher's staples - childhood trauma that sets up adult madness, focusing the events around a holiday or major event, characters who don't believe anything's wrong and die for their ignorance, etc. - X-Ray tells the story of a woman named Susan who goes to the hospital for a check up and becomes the target of a madman in surgical scrubs who is killing anyone who might let her leave the hospital.  It's a silly premise, even by slasher standards, but it really sets up some entertaining carnage.
 Like any good slasher film, we learn there's a killer long before the lead character does, which allows the film to mix splatter and plot development early on. The opening sequence, set around young Susan (played by little Elizabeth Hoy, who also starred in the sleazy MMOTW pick Bloody Birthday) and an angry/murderous classmate, lays some pretty big clues out regarding what will happen next and ends with one of the most unique deaths from the slasher movement. And, like most flashbacks to childhood that open slasher films of the early '80s (there are more of them than you think), it's forgotten for most of the film once time jumps forward.
The adult version of Susan is played by former Playboy Playmate and Hee Haw co-star Barbi Benton, who is a surprisingly adept final girl. I'm not saying Benton should win Oscars or even some of those less prestigious film festival awards for her performance, but the weight of the film is on her and she manages to look the part of a terrified victim throughout. She is given a character who makes some pretty bad decisions and is allowed to do some pretty stupid things - at one point she reveals her hiding place by obviously knocking a file off of a file cabinet and at another moment she frantically struggles with a door that reads "Please Open Slowly"- but this is a slasher film and thus such things are needed to push the plot forward. Nitpickers might find fault with the performance and the film's logic, but I'm not sure why such nitpickers would hunt down a film like X-Ray in the first place.
Keeping up with slasher standards also requires some blood splatter, and director Boaz Davidson (who would go on to become a pretty successful producer on films like The Expendables series, Drive Angry and The Iceman) doesn't disappoint. The film isn't a wall-to-wall bloodbath like some of its contemporaries, but it does have some well-timed kills and plenty of splatter. There are also a few too-graphic-for-The-Mike scenes involving needles - my personal cinematic kryptonite - including one during Susan's initial examination that almost made me throw up. If you're afraid of needles like I am, this film will give you fits.
X-Ray is far from being a great horror movie, but it's such a frantic and entertaining little film that I can't help but smile at it. Everyone is a potential victim - especially because every character seems to have no real personality - and the film manages to keep providing fresh ways to dispose of them while Benton runs through this hospital in fear. The hospital setting made me think a lot about Halloween II, and X-Ray's uptempo pace and over-the-top performances make it a cheesier alternative to that fine slasher sequel. Davidson knows how to provide pulpy entertainment to a viewer who just wants to have fun, and though X-Ray doesn't reach the ludicrous heights of something like Pieces it still manages to be a ridiculously fun slasher movie.

August 16, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #189 - Seconds

Long before Davids Cronenberg and Lynch made the bizarre their normal, Hollywood heavyweight John Frankenheimer made one of the most fascinatingly surreal genre-bending movies of all-time. The film is Seconds, released in 1966 to little fanfare and much confusion, in which an old man (John Randolph) decides to escape from his old life and use a radical medical procedure to become a young man (Rock Hudson) with a fresh young life.
The plot sounds relatively simple, like something that would be used for a 30 minute TV show like The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt (both of which did offer  episodes with similar ideas), bur Frankenheimer finds more than enough content to fill this full-length film with bizarre imagery and thought-provoking plot turns.  The film teeters on the edge a few times, and it's easy to see why some viewers lose interest in the fluid narrative of the film, but each time I see it I feel more in tune with Frankenheimer's loopy sci-fi odyssey.
The film opens with the life of Arthur Hamilton, played by Randolph, and quickly makes the viewer feel unease about this man's life without really telling us much. The camera follows him through mundane daily activities and uninteresting conversations with his aging wife, but also dangles a carrot of intrigue in front of him. Hamilton has been receiving late night phone calls from an old friend named Charlie, urging him to visit a secret medical organization which will help him start his life over. It sounds too good to be true, but Hamilton has reason to believe something is going on there, because he has known for sometime that Charlie is dead.
Hamilton makes up his mind rather quickly, which leads him to this company and leads the film into some haunting sequences which challenge the morality of his decision. Some of these are done visually, like a creepy sequence where a seemingly drugged Hamilton enters a room with a young woman in a bed, but others draw their power from the script. One of the best sequences in the film sits Hamilton in the middle of a room and lets a series of employees talk to him about the decision he's making, starting with an insurance man (who manages to say "The question of death selection may be the most important decision in your life." with a straight face) and leading to a devilish old man who seems to literally talk Hamilton into killing himself. Of course, this kind of suicide promises a second chance, but the words of this old man come off as a rather ominous sign of trouble ahead.
Hamilton goes forth with the procedure, assisted further by a bit of blackmail that makes it impossible for him to turn back, and is reborn as Tony Wilson, who is played by Hollywood star Rock Hudson. Hudson was far from being Frankenheimer's top choice for the film, and I too have often thought of him as an actor with less range than some of his contemporaries, but Hudson certainly brings his best to this role. From day one of his new life we can tell that there are some second thoughts, and even a relationship with a young woman doesn't seem to satisfy all of his expectations about being young again. Wilson also ends up finding himself in some strange social situations that become chaotic on screen, which I've often read as a statement about dropping the seemingly introverted Hamilton into an extroverted world as Wilson. Hudson does an excellent job of showing us the unease that occurs in this character as he comes to recognize regrets about his choice, which leads the film back to the company for an unforgettably chilling final act.
From the opening titles - a montage of extreme close-up images put together by the legendary Saul Bass that reminds me of his opening titles for Vertigo - it is obvious that Frankenheimer does not want to viewer to be comfortable watching this character (or is it these characters?) and one of my favorite things about the film is that the camera always seems to be doing something I call "fishbowling" to the characters. You know how when you look at a goldfish in a bowl it either looks really far away or really close to you and huge, depending on the angle you look through the glass? Well, that's how Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe - who would receive an Oscar nomination for the film - make Seconds look. There are a lot of shots that are far too close to the character's face, but they're offset with moments where the camera just seems to be lingering at an angle in the opposite corner of a room or hallway. The altered perspective that comes from the camera's eye adds a lot to the mysterious intrigue of the film.
Seconds tries to succeed on a lot of levels - it's a sci-fi film, it's a horror film, it's a parable about life and death - and it is at least interesting in each of these domains. When the solid lead performances (which are buoyed by supporting turns by actors like Jaws' Murray Hamilton and Will Geer as the previously mentioned Old Man) mix with the haunting visual style, the result is a film that will certainly get viewers thinking. Considering its age, Seconds seems like one of the first great cult cinema mindbenders, and it's still worth revisiting as one of the finest nightmares on film I've ever seen.

August 14, 2013

The Conjuring

(2013, Dir. by James Wan.)

To me James Wan has always been one of those directors who was close, but not close enough, to making a very good horror movie. Saw was a huge hit and even reinvented horror for a few years, but it was also hampered by some serious issues with acting, pacing, and plotting. Then Insidious took his talents in another direction, but still left me cold as it too kept a focus on cheap thrills while feeling more like a video game than a film. 

However, my streak of disagreeing with him (it's not even really a streak, I kinda liked Death Sentence) has ended with the release of The Conjuring.  Dropped in the middle of the summer, slapped with an R-rating for being scary (although I get the feeling the suicide-by-hanging imagery throughout the film was the main culprit), and directed by Wan didn't look like a recipe for great success to me, but it overcomes some similarities to Wan's previous work and works on several levels.

The story has gained a lot of traction from the "based on real events" aspect of the advertising, as the film stars Patrick Wilson (returning to work with the director after Insidious) and Vera Farmiga starring as famous real-world paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The duo were involved in some of the most famous supernatural investigations of the last 60 years - most notably the Amityville "haunting" - and seem like the perfect characters to base a horror film around despite your beliefs on how real their experiences have been. I was lucky to have the real world Warrens fresh in my mind after seeing an aged Lorraine appear in the documentary My Amityville Horror earlier this year, so I had an idea of what I was getting into with these characters before The Conjuring. Like plenty of other viewers, I was giving the story a chance largely because these were real characters and I was interested in seeing just what somebody says might-have-possibly-maybe-one-time happened.

(Random Tangent: The upgrade from Insidious' Rose Byrne to the fantastic Vera Farmiga is another of the main reasons I gave The Conjuring a chance.  If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Byrne and her wooden reactions to everything are like having a package of processed cheese slices, while Farmiga's range as an actor is like owning a fully-staffed dairy farm. BTW, Can I have season two of Bates Motel yet? Please? OK, back to the movie.)

Though it was a look at the Warrens that got me interested in the film, it was the haunting story that sucked me in completely. The Perron family of seven - parents played by Office Space's Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, who is apparently atoning for her role in the all-time-horror-dud remake of The Haunting, an their five daughters - moves into a big old house by a lake and quickly becomes one of the more interesting haunted families I've seen on screen. The number of characters certainly adds to the tension, making the film feel like a supernatural slasher film in which any character could be assaulted by unseen forces at any moment, and all of the cast members - including the five young women playing the daughters - do a good job selling their fear to the audience. Livingston, who is most known for his comedic work, is a refreshing presence as his patriarch character brings a calm presence to the family while visibly being shaken and confused by events that defy explanation. At the same time Taylor is perfect for the role of terrified potential victim - she did it relatively well in that awful Haunting movie too, the rest of it just really stunk - and her presence as the film's adult "scream queen" really moves the film forward.

Wan has shown that he understands the mechanics of cinema scares in his previous work - Insidious, despite feeling rather soulless as a film, could be used as a text book for modern jump-scare horror - and his control over The Conjuring's farmhouse is excellent. There are plenty of things you expect to see - doors slamming, creaky floors, and even possessed birds crashing into windows for the THIRD time in a multiplex horror film this year - but also some well-timed shocks that took even me completely by surprise. Some of the scare tactics don't really work - a subplot involving a possessed doll that looks like it was leftover from Saw or Dead Silence fell completely flat for me - but Wan definitely keeps The Conjuring feeling more fun than his previous haunts.

With strong performances by Wilson and Farmiga taking over the latter part of the film and the solid work of the family, The Conjuring builds up enough steam to coast through a rather chaotic and overproduced final act unscathed. There's too much going right to get caught up in some of the sillier twists and the film moves too fast to really get us questioning just how out of control the final battle for the Perron family's souls really is. It would be easy to pick it apart after the fact, but if I wasn't taken out of the film while watching it there's no reason you should be either. The Conjuring is one of the more engaging mainstream horror films in a long time, and it has a legitimate shot at sticking around as one of the most successful horror films of this generation. It's scary, it's fun, it's even kind of smart - it's possibly the perfect summer horror film.

August 9, 2013

Goodbye, Hamster

(Apologies in advance for this administrative post that isn't discussing any cool movies. This topic has reached a point where it needs to be addressed, and I feel like this is the best way of making my point clear. Normal content at the site will resume, for good, after this point is made.)

Over the last several years, From Midnight, With Love has been visited frequently a particularly obnoxious and cowardly troll.  This commenter has been spreading his idiocy among many blogs all over the internet, but of late has been particularly focused on this and other horror blogs, each of which he attacks with vile, inappropriate, and harassing comments.  You can look back at past post to find his lunacy, but I won't bother giving examples of it here.

To me, this particular troll has always seemed like one of two things. At best, he's an immature and poorly-educated person who sadly thinks he's being funny. At worst, he's a sexual deviant who clearly needs therapy for whatever ails him. I've allowed his comments here, for the most part, because he seems to only be entertaining himself and because he has (for the most part) not been disrespectful directly to me or my other readers.  Two or three times he even commented on the post itself and seemed like he was interested in being civil, which shocked me. In the long run ignorance was my choice, and I hoped he would tire of his own words.

I realize today that I have been wrong in this matter. As a member of the horror community I will no longer entertain the ramblings of such a person, because it does no good for me or anyone else. This commenter has done nothing to earn his voice on this forum, and I can no longer allow his immature drivel to reside here while he continues to seek out and harass my friends in this community. To them, I apologize for not doing this sooner.

The main point I'm trying to make is simple, and I will spell it out directly. Hamster, you are no longer welcome here. Your disrespect for women and indecent behavior has gone on long enough, and I'm not willing to be a part of it any more. Feel free to spam me with your comments and insults, but know that they will fall on deaf ears.

Your time here is up. I have contacted blogger regarding how to deal with offensive and hateful commenters, and will do everything in my power to make sure your behavior is not allowed here or anywhere else. It is in your best interests to move on.

It is with a heavy heart that I have enabled comment moderation for From Midnight, With Love. I wished that this site could be laid back and host intelligent discussion of the films I am promoting, but unfortunately that is not possible right now.  I urge any of my friends in the horror community who are dealing with this ignoramus to take similar steps, because I no longer see any reason to put up with this behavior.

We will not discuss this again. FMWL is moving on to a better day.

August 8, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #188 - The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House sits near the top of my short list of classic horror movies that not enough people talk about. To me it has always felt a little like this one is lost in the shuffle, hidden beneath other haunted house tales (like The Haunting) and other films of its time period (like The Exorcist). I understand the greatness of those films (although I do seem to have more concerns with The Haunting than most do), but I have a hard time agreeing with anyone who doesn't think this movie belongs in the conversation when it's a conversation about the best horror movies ever made. (In fact, last year I ranked it as my 35th favorite horror film ever - which, considering how many horror movies have been made, is pretty high praise.)
Starting out by claiming that a movie is one of the best of its kind is a bold thing to do, but I wanted to make this point right off the bat - The Legend of Hell House strikes me as one of the most truly successful horror movies that exists. Thanks to a bold script by Richard Matheson - that is adapted from his own novel, Hell House - it's always amazed me just how well this film bridges the gap between the traditional haunted house tale and the more diabolical, sadistic face of horror that was rising up in the 1970s. Matheson once made vampires a science in I Am Legend, and with Hell House he managed to tackle the supernatural with a similarly result-based approach.
The plot is simple - one house, plenty of spooky events, and four characters in search of an answer - but the methods are unique. Matheson introduces three conflicting approaches from the people who enter Hell House, and much of the story is a struggle both to understand the haunting and to understand how to deal with the haunting. The group that is paid to study Hell House is comprised of a physicist (and his wife) who is only interested in a rational explanation of the situation, a spiritual medium who is mostly interested in the supernatural equivalent of "hugging it out" with the haunters, and a cynical, physical medium who is also the only known survivor of the house.
The latter character I mentioned is Benjamin Fischer, played by the great Roddy McDowell, and he is one of the most well-written characters in the annals of horror. As the film begins he appears as if he'll follow a similar route through the film as Elisha Cook, Jr. once did in House on Haunted Hill - the scared survivor who exists only to talk about how evil the house is - but his character arc is a fantastic change of pace. Every character in the film goes through a lot while subjected to Hell House's terrors, and the film does a fantastic job of literally putting us in the face of the character as they react to their surroundings. And, at least to me, the central piece of the film is Fischer, who moves through the film presenting his fear in a logical and increasingly understandable manner.
The women in the film shine too, with young Pamela Franklin (who starred in another of the all-time great horror films, The Innocents, as a child) making the spiritual medium a sympathetic character and Gayle Hunnicutt turning the seemingly timid wife into a unhinged, psychosexual being when influenced by the spirits at play. Both characters help sell Matheson's twisted vision, and as the film moves forward it should become very clear to the viewer that Matheson wants us to feel uncomfortable in Hell House. Hunnicutt pulls this off extremely well in a pair of scenes where the forces in the house prey on her sexual frustrations, which are just a couple of the moments where our characters get a little too sweaty while dealing with the house.  The spirits at work in this house take immense pleasure in possessing these characters, and the film's depictions of these moments are definitely gripping.
The film builds to an ending that has been maligned by many for its randomness (and/or simplicity), but I've always found it to be a rather fascinating way to end the story. It makes sense while dealing with the film's balance between science and the supernatural, and it allows the remaining characters to close their arcs perfectly. It's not necessarily going to scare many viewers - and it does take the intensity of the film down from the heights of earlier scenes - but it feels like it fits to me. As a wise detective might say, the simplest answer is often the right one - and Matheson understands that here.
Combining this ending with the uncomfortable and unpredictable film that precedes it only strengthens the impact that The Legend of Hell House has on me. It looks like a conventional horror film, but Matheson's script and the direction of John Hough - who always seems to be doing something with the camera's perspective of the characters and the sound design that keeps Hell House feeling tense - provide a new twist as the film goes on. To me, all of these things make The Legend of Hell House the quintessential haunted house movie, and make it a movie that any horror fan needs to revisit often.

August 7, 2013

Go Forth and Win, You Lovers of Horror!

If you're like me, you  realize that Bill Adcock over at Radiation-Scarred Reviews is one of the most knowledgeable dudes writing about genre flicks on this here internet. (If not, you should learn that.)

There's a good reason I'm telling you this now. Bill has a pretty sweet little giveaway going on over at RSR, where he's asking us horror fans to get a little nostalgic. If you click on this link right here, you can get all the details of The Radiation-Scarred Reviews Nostalgia contest, which will offer some horror flavored goodies to three lucky readers, provided they follow the simple steps to enter the contest.

So head on over and check it out before it ends on August 20th, and feel free to tell Bill that The Mike sent you if you're so inclined. Even if you don't want to win, you can still go check out his collection of reviews (he even recently reviewed The Manitou(!), a film which also recently blew my fragile mind) and enjoy one of the most well-written and diverse sites out there.

It's a can't lose scenario. Go forth and win!

August 4, 2013

Kiss of the Damned

(2013, Dir. by Xan Cassavetes.)

A high society vampire picture that hearkens back to horror films of the past, Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned firstly strikes me as one of the most beautiful films in recent memory.  There are some style versus substance questions that need to be pondered when looking at the whole picture, which is light on plot and visually playful, but the one thing that is certain is that the film makes a strong impression.

The story is a simple one - reclusive female vampire falls in love with a human, turns him into a vampire despite her reservations, then risks losing him and her way of life to her returning sister - who is a much more violent and uninhibited member of their vampire clan.  You could say what follows is a romantic vampire story, especially if you consider graphic (but not pornographic) sexual encounters and a bit of bloodletting romantic. (And if you do, I'm not judging. More power to ya.)

There's a decidedly European feel to the proceedings, with French actresses Josephine de La Baume and Roxane Mesquida carrying the film as the two vampire sisters. The former is Djuna, who takes in a screenwriter played by Milo Ventimiglia and helps him adapt to the nonviolent code of vampire life, apparently thinking that maintaining a low profile is key to the preservation of the species.  Her thoughts are shared by many vampires in power, but are shunned by her flamboyant sister Mimi (played by Mesquida, who genre fans might recognize from Rubber) who just wants to eat and screw people and thinks everyone else - including her sister's new lover - should feel the same way.

The actresses aren't the only European thing about the film, as horror aficionados will see obvious connections to both the work of England's Hammer Films and the oversexualized vampire films that came out of Italy and Spain in the 1970s. Your approach to the film will probably determine which aspect of those '70s films will have an effect on you - optimistic viewers might focus on the visual style and reliance on music to set the tone, while pessimistic viewers might struggle with the somewhat stilted performances of the stars - particularly Mesquida, who might grate on viewers through her performance.  I was most interested in the film's style, with scenes that seem straight out of The Brides of Dracula or Daughters of Darkness helping me to accept the film's flaws more easily.

While Mesquida's tone in the film is somewhat obnoxious - I attribute this more to language barriers than the choices made by the actress - it's her interactions with the other vampires that push Kiss of the Damned to its best moments for me. The interactions between her and her sister are intense conflicts of personality, and her few scenes with the matriarch of this vampire culture (played by another French actress named Anna Mouglais) are perhaps the most interesting in the film.  There's a neat connection of vampirism and addiction that comes out here and, though it's something that's been done plenty of times before, it makes me more interested in Mimi's attempts to revolutionize and corrupt the vampire system that rules the film.

Kiss of the Damned isn't an example of great storytelling, but it works for me because it takes vampirism back to the basics and manages to create a feud that is full of dangerous tension - both through its violence and its sex.  Writer/director Cassavetes (the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands) shows a lot of skill with this debut feature, and has created a film that I will remember as one of the most artistic horror films of the year. If you want to see a truly adult themed vampire tale, you could do a lot worse than Kiss of the Damned.

August 2, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #187 - Red Rock West

I know what my film history professors in college taught me. (Well, I know most parts of it. I wasn't buying all they had to offer.) I know that, according to them and an article by Paul Schrader, film noir was a movement and not a genre. It lasted from The Maltese Falcon through Touch of Evil, and then it was done. According to them, nothing else is noir.
I don't mean to quibble with a professor who had a hand fetish and the writer of Taxi Driver, but there a few movies I've seen since then that make me think of Sam Spade or a Mexican Charlton Heston; movies that make me think I should never trust attractive women and movies that make me assume there's at least one sociopathic killer in every bar. The trendy thing to say about these movies is that they're "neo-noir" - which implies to me that they're inferior knock offs of film noir - but every once in a while one of these films hits all the right notes and makes me reconsider what I was once taught. (Which, of course, is something we should always do anyway. Hooray for contrarianism!)

(Is contrarianism even a word? If not, I call dibs on inventing it.)
Which brings us to today's film, Red Rock West. Directed by John Dahl (who also co-wrote the film with his brother Rick), it's a deadly game between an honest man, a deadly man, a corrupt man, and...a woman. Being noir (or at the least noiresque), it's not fair for me to put a qualifier on the woman character. Is she honest? Is she deadly? Is she corrupt? You could shake a Magic 8 Ball and get a more consistent answer than I could give you about the women of noir.  There's like five books I could write about them and I'd probably still miss several key points.
Nicolas Cage stars as Michael Williams, an ex-marine who is roaming the Wyoming countryside looking for work and stumbles into the middle of a murder scheme. Cage plays the character with his trademark twitch, but also stays true to that unhinged-yet-pure-hearted persona that he seemed to hit so well in the mid '90s. He gets caught up in that unrewarding cycle of trying to do the right thing, with his biggest mistake being that he accidentally accepts a gig as a professional killer. He thought the guy needed a bartender, but instead the guy needed someone whacked. I'm sure this happens all the time. So remember: Don't forget to ask what the job you're accepting is before you accept it.
The man who mistakenly hires Michael is played by the late J.T. Walsh, one of the '90s sleaziest character actors, and his wife is played seductively by a young Lara Flynn Boyle, who embraces the role of femme fatale with ease. Their dynamic with Cage's character allows for plenty of great interactions as the drifter tries to find the easiest exit from the small town of Red Rock that is left for him. The plot survives thanks to Michael's extreme string of bad luck, particularly when he stumbles into the film's most unhinged character - Lyle from Dallas, the hitman who Michael accidentally impersonated who is played by no less than Dennis Hopper.
By this point in his career anyone who loves dark cinema had seen what Hopper is capable of, and his turn as the killer here steals scenes throughout the film. He's not as crazy as he was in films like Blue Velvet, instead making Lyle seem like a relatively smart guy who just really enjoys money and killing. While all four of the film's stars are excellent - this is one of the most fantastic casting jobs I can think of in a movie - it's Hopper's energy in his scenes that really keeps Red Rock West feeling dangerous and exciting. Thanks to him we feel even more sympathy for our down on his luck hero, and at times he even makes us feel a little sympathy for Wayne and Suzanne, despite their attempts to kill each other.

Red Rock West doesn't look like the traditional noir - or the traditional midnight movie, to be honest - but it's so well-plotted by Dahl and so well acted by the cast that it overcomes all the cliches with ease. It's a little-movie-that-could, one that was even sold to HBO and premiered on cable before getting picked up and distributed theatrically, but it has always jumped off the screen at me as a truly special pulp thriller. Above all else, it's my favorite argument toward the idea that maybe noir didn't die off for good in 1958. The rain and the overcoats are (mostly) gone, but Red Rock West still feels like it belongs next to some of Hollywood's darkest crime stories.