Monday, 30 March 2009

It’s Alive

1974
Dir. Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen is renowned for his low budget, high octane and surprisingly thought provoking B thrillers. After penning and directing the blaxploitation movie Black Caesar (1973) and its sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973), Cohen hit pay-dirt with his outrageous and highly satirical B shocker It’s Alive, a cult hit that crossed over into Seventies mainstream cinema and highlighted the sly wit and subversive bite of Cohen.

Married couple Frank (John P Ryan) and Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) are plunged into a nightmarish world after the birth of their second child: a monstrously mutated toddler with an insatiable appetite for blood!

With quite a startling premise, Cohen really wastes no time in cutting to the chase and evoking surprising emotional depth from the outset. Sociological and environmental issues are addressed throughout the film. The over-prescription of drugs to expectant mothers like Thalidomide in the 50s and 60s, and external dangers in the environment, such as pesticides used in mass food production, are mentioned as being possible catalysts in the creation of such a shocking creature. The dialogue and many of the debates between characters throughout is satirically pointed and thought provoking. These weighty issues have never seemed more relevant, particularly when one ponders the vast amount of inadequately tested and down right dodgy ‘fertility/virility’ drugs one can acquire online, or the amount of chemically enhanced food products readily available in local supermarkets. Cohen also points a barbed finger at the concept of unconditional love, parental/child relationships and the strain of contemporary family life. Notions of free-will, the influence of society and primordial human nature are also addressed: while the baby is indeed a killer, it is through no fault of its own – it is still a baby and only seems intent on survival, one of the most basic human instincts. It lashes out when it feels threatened and appears to be merely seeking out its family. Can it be blamed for attempting to preserve its existence?


The film is most shocking in its depiction of a society exhibiting zero intolerance of anything and everything that is deemed ‘different.’ References to Frankenstein abound throughout the film: the title is of course lifted from James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, and is heard when Dr Frankenstein deliriously cries out after he has shocked his creation into artificial life. The film wields a strangely affecting pathos and much sympathy is elicited for the monstrous offspring, especially when the ‘village mob’, in the guise of the armed forces, sets out to destroy it – a creature that is here through no fault of its own and is essentially, misunderstood and only relaying on its natural instincts to survive.

Cohen craftily subverts typical imagery associated with family life, notably in the scenes in the nursery and primary school. These places become the space where unnatural and creepy events occur. The womb-like sewer systems where the baby seeks refuge and the milk float that ‘lactates’ after its driver is ravaged amongst the bottles of milk, are also darkly humorous and tremendously effective. We are tantalised by the briefest glimpses of the baby: a flash of a beady eye; a fang here and a talon there.

When the police and Frank finally catch up with the infant and corner it in the sewer system, Frank’s parental instincts kick in and he realises that regardless of the pathetic monster’s destructive nature, it is still his own flesh and blood and he makes an ill fated attempt to escape with the screaming creature in his now loving arms.
Cohen’s technical mastery is really quite evident in these scenes and he creates a suffocating atmosphere as events play out under the lurid and flashing red lights of the police cars. The powerful ending and sly set up for a sequel is chilling in its simple twist.

The music by Bernard Herrmann, was his penultimate film score prior to his death in 1975. While far from his best work, it’s still an incredibly effective and moody soundtrack made up of brooding strings and murky noir shimmerings that perfectly enhance the intense and provocative story.

A deeply compelling and fiendishly funny film that is way better than it has any right to be.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Nanny

1965
Dir. Seth Holt

Returning home from spending two years in a juvenile psychiatric hospital after the suspicious death of his younger sister, Joey (William Dix) finds it difficult settling into his family home again. His insensitive and neglectful father Bill is still as distant and nearly always absent from the house; his mother Virginia still as fragile and in the depths of depression as she was when he left; and his loyal and somewhat overbearing Nanny (Bette Davis) still as domineering and quietly sinister. Joey was blamed for his sister’s death and his precocious behaviour makes it hard for his parents to accept him back again and does nothing to alleviate his parents’ suspicions of his suspected derangement. Insistent that he can look after himself, he goes out of his way to ensure his contact with his Nanny is minimal. He refuses to take the room she has prepared for him or eat any of the food she has cooked. He alleges that she was responsible for the death of his sister and is now determined to kill him too.

The Nanny is one of Hammer’s most subtle and mature chillers, perhaps owing more to the likes of Val Lewton than their usual gothic outpourings. At times the psychological intrigue and ambiguity give way to more melodramatic moments, but it is never anything less than compelling. The lack of violence and gore is refreshing and Holt’s restrained direction is as effective and deft as Davis’ performance as the titular Nanny. The crisp black and white photography lends the film an air of sombre menace.

It is clear from the outset the unyielding hold Nanny wields over the family. We learn that she was Virginia’s Nanny too and is still depended on by the troubled mother who has taken to washing down her denial with gin in order to cope with her grief and loss. Wendy Craig’s performance as the pathetic Virginia is a touching one. She seems to have reverted back to a childlike creature in the wake of her daughter’s death and relies on the Nanny more than ever. At one stage, in a hushfully unsettling scene we see Nanny spoon feed her and brush her hair. After a suspicious bout of food poisoning, for which Joey receives blame, the broken woman is taken to hospital, leaving her son in the care of the Nanny, whose quiet power echoes through the house.



Careful not to present us with a clear cut story of tormented and disturbed child vs. unhinged and dangerous Nanny, writer Jimmy Sangster paints full and dark blooded characters. When we first encounter Joey he is playing a cruel and twisted prank on one of his nurses. He displays contempt and suspicion of middle-aged women, particularly his Nanny. We are often left wondering whether he is simply an insufferable brat or really just a damaged and paranoid little boy trying to recover from the premature death of his sister which he blames Nanny for. He ensures his aversion towards his Nanny is unflinchingly clear.

Similarly the character of the Nanny is as ambiguously drawn. Several harrowing flashbacks fill in the blanks and offer us the opportunity to peer further into Nanny and Joey’s murky pasts. We learn that Davis’ character felt she had no alternative but to enter a life of servitude for the Fane family due to the dire poverty of her own background and social status. We learn too that she has a daughter of her own who has died because of a botched abortion in a seedy backstreet hovel. Mother and daughter had a bitter relationship and never reconciled their differences. It is an affecting and uncomfortable scene highlighting the choices people are forced to make because of pride. It also poses serious questions about the class divide in Britain and how people from poorer economic backgrounds had fewer options in life.

As well as the domineering and insidious side of Nanny, we also see her in quieter moments too, for example the shot of her in her small room, quietly rocking in her chair, seemingly reflecting on melancholy secrets we can never be privy to. Whilst appearing perfectly innocent, scenes such as this also carry a weighty air of the sinister too, further adding to the already heady dubiousness.



A particularly chilling moment occurs when Virginia’s sister Penny comes to stay and finds Nanny standing outside Joey’s room clutching a pillow… Penny’s weak heart means she can’t deal with stress or shock and when she suspects that Nanny might be a murderess the consequences are dire. Standing formidably over the dying woman who is begging for her medicine, Nanny adopts the pose of an impatient adult dealing with a stroppy child and doesn’t bat an eyelid when Penny slips into death’s dark embrace.

The majority of the story takes places within the confines of the family home, a lush apartment in the city. Events become stiflingly claustrophobic and the few instances we are permitted to go outside offer no respite. Tension snakes around the ambiguity of the characters and the gradual realisation through revelatory flashbacks paints a quietly haunting and shattering portrait of cruel circumstances and unavoidable heartbreak. While Nanny wasn’t exactly the cause of Susy’s death, she wasn’t entirely guiltless and her guilt has effectively hollowed her out. She stood by and let Joey take the blame, hence her eagerness to welcome him home and fuss over him.
The flashbacks depicting her bathing the dead child are completely distressing.



Prior to this role, Davis had starred in two Gothic chillers: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Her performance in The Nanny is often overlooked in favour of these more elaborate Grand Guignol pantomimes. Davis ensures that we sympathise with the seemingly downtrodden yet dexterous Nanny. The ambiguity that surrounds her character is palpable. The first glimpse we get of her is as she purposefully makes her way home from an errand: she passes through a park smiling at children playing and feeding pigeons. Surely she’s just a sweet old lady? Surely?

A chilling portrait of loss, obsession and paranoia that is cut through with a dark wit and undeniably dark poignance.

Random Creepy Scene # 416: Salem’s Lot


Adapted from Stephen King’s best selling 1975 novel of the same name, Tobe Hooper’s uneven but supremely creepy TV mini-series follows writer Ben Mears (David Soul) as he travels back to his hometown of Salem’s Lot in order to research the old Marsten house.

The house’s latest tenants are causing quite a stir in the town. One of them, sinister Richard Straker (James Mason), runs a small antique shop in the town; the other resident, the mysterious silent partner Kurt Barlow, has yet to be glimpsed by anyone.
It becomes clear as the series unfolds, that Barlow is an ancient master vampire and is gradually turning the residents of Salem’s Lot into vampires.

One of his first victims is a young boy, Ralphie Glick. Glick disappears soon after Straker and Barlow move into town. His grisly fate becomes clear later in the series in a scene that makes the blood run cold and hairs prick up…

Ralphie appears floating outside his brother Danny’s bedroom window, feebly scratching at the glass and staring intently at his sibling. Danny gingerly gets out of bed and, seemingly transfixed by his now vampiric brother, moves slowly towards the window. Outside his brother continues to float ominously in a swirl of fog until he is let in and, smiling sadistically at his brother, proceeds to float across the bedroom towards him.

The shots of the boy floating outside the window were filmed backwards by Hooper to lend them an eerie and strange feel and the scene is accompanied by a haunting and foreboding score of whining strings and thumping piano.

Fertiliser for blossoming nightmares…

 
The Nosferatu-like Kurt Barlow...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Session 9

2001
Dir. Brad Anderson

An asbestos removal firm headed by harassed and down-on-his-luck Gordon (Peter Mullan) begin working in an abandoned asylum. Under pressure to get the job finished in as little time as possible, the close-knit group begin to fracture and unravel as the oppressive atmosphere of the building entwines itself with their already troubled and fragile psyches, leading to the unveiling of sordid secrets, mental break-downs and murder…

In the wake of films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Sixth Sense (1999), many horror films utilised a more subtle approach in their efforts to terrify and extract more cerebral chills from their audiences. The ‘less is more’ approach of film makers such as Val Lewton is strongly evident in Session 9, a film that perversely revels in its icy suggestiveness and shadowy menace.
Even without showing us something scary, Anderson conveys a particular tone of psychological horror in much of the dialogue: characters discuss the fact that many of the former patients return to dwell in the empty building from time to time: lost souls in a frantic world that has forgotten them; they talk about some of the barbaric treatment of the patients and how brutal lobotomies were performed; at one stage one of the characters likens the shape of the hospital to a giant bat – the closer towards the tips of the wings, the more dangerous and insane the patients that used to dwell there. These vivid and highly evocative exchanges conjure all manner of horrific and profoundly hair-raising imagery within the viewer’s head.

The look and feel of the film is obtained through the use of actual locations, hand-held camera work, subtle lighting and strong performances from a robust cast including David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III and co-writer Stephen Gevedon.

The bleak mood of the film seeps with a foreboding dread and hopelessness that curls up in the gut and silently churns the stomach.
It is perhaps the stillness of the film that unsettles the most: long, static shots and languidly fluid camera movements ensure the dark events uncoil effectively and register in your perception much more insidiously. At times the mood inside the old building is suffocating, and even the brief forays into the outside world offer no consolation, as sun dappled and eerily calm as they are. Indeed, much of the film plays out under the glare of the sun or the lights the men use: the fact that these moments are just as creepy is testament to Anderson’s restrained direction and the overwhelming moodiness of the location.




The building, the Danvers State Hospital, where events in the film unspool is essentially a character in its own right: a vast and sprawling abandoned psychiatric hospital that looms menacingly up out of its surroundings. As the characters explore the intimidating depths of its bowels, we see all manner of horrific and archaic medical instruments and apparatus lying quietly disused in the overbearing stillness of the place. It is the actors’ reactions to their surroundings that helps enhance the effectiveness of Session 9’s creepy mood. Apparently director Brad Anderson used to drive past the disused building on his way to work and it began to force its way into his thoughts and dreams and he basically wrote the story around the building.

Each of the damaged characters harbours a dark secret and could potentially be pushed over the brink of sanity. Anderson cuts no corners and ensures that each character is fully fleshed out and believable. It is quite alarming to watch as the tight bond that tied this group of hard working blue collar friends and co-workers together, begins to fray and completely disintegrate. Tempers boil and personal grudges ripple darkly to the surface.

One of the most discomforting and downright bloodcurdling scenes occurs when Josh Lucas’ crafty character Hank returns to the asylum at night to retrieve a stash of antique coins he discovered in one of the cremation furnaces. The only sound we hear is the muffled jazz music from Hank’s earphones against the deafening silence of his surroundings. As he makes his way quickly back out of the building and along the divided corridors, he becomes aware that he is not alone. The panic that ensues is unshakable. Things become even more unnerving when Lucas finally shows up in the asylum again later on in the film after his ‘disappearance.’

‘What Are You Doing Here?’

Another standout moment occurs when Jeff, a self-proclaimed scotophobic (fear of the dark) is left working alone in a long subterranean corridor lined with overhead lights. The generator burns out and Jeff watches in abstract horror as the line of overhead lights begin to flicker off, one by one, before he turns and flees up the corridor seemingly chased by the merciless and all-consuming dark behind him.
The winding story twists and turns and musters a deft and haunting ambiguity as it coils tighter and tighter towards its inevitably dark dénouement.




The title of the film refers to a collection of tape cassettes containing recordings of a psychiatrist’s interview sessions with one of the former patients, a multiple-personality case.
On discovering the tapes, law school drop out Mike becomes obsessed with the case of this particular patient and spends more and more time alone in the basement listening to the interviews and more detached from his work and colleagues. By the time we reach the ninth session tape, things reach the pinnacle of their increasingly devastating downward trajectory and all hell breaks lose.

Excerpts of the distorted interview sessions worm their way into the films soundtrack and even further into the viewer’s ears with their haunting and disturbing ambiguity. The disembodied voice is eerie enough on its own, but the words it utters to describe the dark events leading to its speaker’s mental breakdown are undeniably chilling.
The haunting soundtrack, courtesy of the ever experimental Climax Golden Twins, consists of moody and sparse piano compositions played out over ominous, rumbling and echoic sound-scapes. Spine-tingling and utterly unsettling.

Session 9 is recommended to those who like their horror restrained, sombre and very, very upsetting.

Hell Night

1981
Dir. Tom DiSimone

The early eighties was officially a good time for slasher movies. From 1978 to round about 1985 is generally considered the slasher heyday. From Black Christmas to Halloween, Friday the 13th to, well, Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, and everything in between; the output of the horror genre at this time usually involved some masked psycho or other stalking nubile teenagers in a specific location, killing them off in grisly fashion, one by one, until only a single female character was left to face the brute alone, with nothing but her underwear and resourcefulness.
Hell Night is one such film, but its ominous atmosphere and gothic trimmings mark it as one of the better ones.

As part of their initiation into the revered fraternity Alpha Sigma Rho, four young pledges must spend the night in the exceedingly creepy Garth Manor, were legend has it, many years before; disturbed patriarch Raymond Garth slaughtered his wife and monstrously deformed offspring before taking his own life. Unbeknownst to the pledges, a number of other students have rigged the house with props and booby traps to keep them on their toes throughout the night. However unbeknownst to even the pranksters, someone, or something, still lurks within the mansion’s crumbling walls. Something with murderous intent and a lust of blood… One by one, the teens are stalked and slain until only a couple remain and realise the full extent of the horrific situation. Can they make it long enough to survive the night and see another day?

The cast of gullible pledges includes Linda Blair as Marti (the ‘resourceful, down-to-earth tomboyish’ one), Peter Barton as Jeff, the ‘sensitive and dreamy’ one, Vincent Van Patten as Seth, the ‘randy jock’, and Suki Goodwin as Denise, the ‘sexy and promiscuous English’ one. While blatant stereotypes one and all, these characters are at least allowed a modicum of intelligence and are drawn with the faintest of characterisation: amongst other things, we learn that Marti comes from a working class background and helped her father repair cars in his garage. This will obviously come in handy later…



When the murders begin they come thick and fast before the carefully built up jolts recede back to foreboding dread and eerie tension. At times the film has an ‘old dark house’ feel to it, as the various characters wander around the faded grandeur of the vast interior with candelabrums in hand, brushing off wayward cobwebs. The pledges are all dressed in period costumes, which really enhance the gothic atmospherics and twisted fairytale connotations. At times Hell Night is pretty formulaic: the cast split up to explore/have sex/look for help and are inevitably attacked and killed. As it is a slasher movie though, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to viewers. It follows the blueprint of the genre precisely, but does throw in a few surprises here and there to keep things brisk, and director DeSimone peppers proceedings with memorable shots and carefully constructed scenes of tension.

Surprisingly one character does manage to escape from the grounds of the spooky manor to venture back into town and get help. Unsurprisingly, the police think he is just playing an elaborate prank and threaten to arrest him.

One of the film’s creepiest moments comes when Blair finds herself locked in a large candlelit room where she is unnerved by a holographic projection, set up by the older students, of a decomposing corpse lumbering menacingly towards her.



Another particularly taut, white knuckle-inducing scene involves Blair and Barton barricading themselves into a room and beginning to momentarily relax again. As they plan their escape they are situation in the foreground of the shot. In the background, and out of their line of sight, we see a huge rug on the floor begin to stir and rise up as something enters the room from a hidden trapdoor beneath it… Tense stuff!

The ghoulish killer is only glimpsed briefly here and there throughout the film, but when we do finally get a good look, he is suitably grotesque and gnarled.
When Barton and Blair venture into the catacombs beneath the house to try and surprise the killer with a pitchfork, the camera backs down the tunnels in-front of them, capturing their terrified expressions which are further highlighted by the lurid lighting in the scene.

While DeSimone’s other filmic output is largely relegated to adult and exploitation fare, his deft direction of Hell Night ensures its status as one of the stand out slashers of the early eighties. Short, sharp, sweet and chillingly atmospheric.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Sewage Baby

1990
Dir. Francis Teri

AKA The Suckling

If shoddy, distasteful and dire bargain-bucket horror is your thing, then Sewage Baby will no doubt have you positively convulsing with shameful delight. A monstrously mutated foetus runs amok in a whorehouse and kills its unsavoury inhabitants. Meanwhile, Daily Mail readers across the nation become inconsolably outraged.

A dumb college couple unexpectedly discover that they are going to be parents. Before you can say ‘come to daddy’ he whisks her off to an illegal abortion clinic that also doubles as a brothel. Cue some random and queasy nudity. Sporting a fetching yellow cardigan that must surely belie his virile masculinity, the rather camp boyfriend claims they have no other choice. The girlfriend assertively points out that ‘I’m gonna do, whatever I wanna do.’ She is soon drugged by the domineering and matriarchal ‘Big Momma’, who makes it her business to make an executive decision for the blustering girl. After she performs the termination she proceeds to flush the waste material down the toilet in a most undignified manner.

What she didn’t bargain on was that on encountering some convenient toxic waste in the sewers, the aborted foetus would soon mutate into a gigantic and slobbering beast, complete with claws, fangs and the ability to spin webs of ick, hell bent on revenge. Before long the seedy inhabitants of the clinic/brothel realise they are trapped in the seedy house and are picked off, one by moronic one, by the ghastly mutant-critter that has a tendency to pop up out of sinks, toilets and various other things connected to pipes in the house. You see, they can’t simply open a door or window and leave the house because, well, not only are they all soft-headed goons, but the wayward mutant bairn has also covered the building in a giant placenta. Ick. 



Sewage Baby is the absolute nadir of straight-to-video, nonsensical, mildly-offensive-if-it-wasn’t-so-bloody-awful, depressingly (but highly amusing if you're in the mood) exploitative trash.
If you are in any way sensitive or prone to fits of soap-box outrage regarding the use of a rather taboo subject, such as abortion, as the dodgy central motif of a grimy horror film, maybe this film is not for you. While it could arguably be read as a highly grotesque Pro-Life and karma-centric morality piece, it’s simply too dire and quite frankly, it’s not really an argument I want to present. If it weren’t so woefully inept it would be immensely more offensive than it already is. Pure exploitation for exploitation’s sake, Sewage Baby is grimy, sleazy and more than a tad grotty. Even in admitting I’ve watched it I feel I need to take a shower and make friends with lots of bleach. Bleurgh.



Take away its highly dubious and controversial subject matter and what you’re left with is a bland and goofy old fashioned monster on the rampage movie that borders on being downright entertaining in a so-bad-its-good way.
A guy in a rubber suit (played by Michael Gingold, the editor of Fangoria Magazine) essentially pokes the other actors until they fall down in a squelch of red stuff. Even Troma, who pride themselves on being subversive and deliberately offensive, have never produced a film so politically incorrect or looked so cultivated when compared to something like this. And that’s in no way a disparaging remark aimed at Troma. As you have no doubt gathered, this is no Vera Drake. Tasteless, tacky, wildly incompetent, Sewage Baby, while unintentionally hilarious, is also depressing and a bit dank. Chances are you have probably never seen anything like this before – and most likely never will again. To be honest, this is not a bad thing.



The buffoonery that passes as acting is startlingly inept. This lot probably think ‘charisma’ is a fragrance by Calvin Kline. There’s only so many times we can watch a character ‘lose it’, fling themselves onto the nearest couch and exclaim in a rather over-exasperated and highly melodramatic way that they ‘Don’t Wanna Die’, they ‘Just Can’t Take It Anymore’, ‘Big Momma! What Are We Gonna Do?!’ and that they’ve ‘Got To Get Outta Here. Like, Right Now!’ before it gets a tad boring.

The Chlamydia-ridden residents of the whore house are a sorry looking bunch. The only characterisation afforded them comes courtesy of a couple of scenes revealing what kind of sex they are into, which isn’t as interesting as it sounds. Instead we have a scene featuring a guy wearing a hat with a propeller on top being menaced by a dildo-wielding, dominatrix type. The half-witted, cretinous and thoroughly dislikeable imbeciles that inhabit this preposterous and bird-brained story are breathtakingly incredulous.



The direction of Francis Terri at times makes Ed Wood look nothing short of competent. His enthusiasm for bizarre camera angles and quirky editing are interesting given what he’s languished his efforts on. Teri’s only other credits include a bit part as ‘police’ in the infinitely more interesting sounding Flesh Eating Mothers and as a producer on some straight to video gem called Head Games. Apparently it’s a ‘sci-fi comedy’ and not an adult movie. So there.

You have been warned…

Monday, 23 March 2009

Night of the Creeps

1986
Dir. Fred Dekker

‘What is this? A homicide, or a bad B Movie?’ – Det. Cameron

Night of the Creeps wears its B-Movie status proudly on its sleeve. Lovingly made by blatant fans of B movies for other fans of B movies, it plays out like a homage to 50s style sci-fi films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with elements of Night of the Living Dead, Shivers and various slasher movies thrown in for good measure. And Tom Atkins as a hard-boiled and ridiculously cynical detective! What’s not to love?

The opening scenes really succeed in setting the tone of the film as an outrageous horror/comedy. Bizarre miniature aliens are battling in a spaceship. They eventually flush their unseen enemy out of an air-hatch and into space. It crash lands on earth in the 1950s near a university campus. On what looks distinctly like Lover’s Lane, two college kids make out in a parked car. The guy notices the comet and goes to see where it landed leaving the girl waiting in the car. On the radio is an announcement that a psychotic lunatic has just escaped from a nearby asylum. Sure enough, he shows up and butchers our hapless sorority sister with an axe. Meanwhile, the frat boy discovers where the comet crashed and as he bends to investigate the bizarre pod-like object, a slug-like creature shoots out of it and straight into his open mouth.

After this wildly inventive opening we jump straight to ‘present day’ 1986. Ha, look! It’s the eighties. They were a bit rubbish at times weren’t they? Geeky students Chris Romero and JC Hooper (hmm, those names sound familiar somehow) console themselves over the fact that they don’t have girlfriends. Chris thinks that by joining a fraternity, he will impress the lovely Cynthia Cronenberg. During pledge week they are challenged to steal a corpse from the university hospital to prove their worth to the fraternity. Accidentally wandering into a cryogenic experiment, the body the two students try to steal turns out to be that of the young man from the 50s who discovered the parasites at the comet crash site. He also turns out to be still very much alive. Well, sort of. His body is full of the hibernating parasites and when Chris and JC try to move him he opens his eyes and they scarper. The body shuffles zombie-like towards the campus and eventually its head explodes scattering a multitude of the slug-like parasites. They begin to take over the bodies of anyone they encounter; by entering their victim’s mouths, laying eggs inside the brain and rendering their hosts mindless, murderous zombies who bloodthirstily shuffle about killing all who cross their paths before their heads unceremoniously explode releasing more parasites.



Soon, a bus load of jocks dressed in tuxedos and heading to their prom fall victim to the pesky parasites. Undeterred by this slight inconvenience, the jocks, who are now all a bit dead, still make their way to pick up their dates from the sorority house. Chris, Cynthia, JC and tough-talking Detective Cameron are in for a busy night as they make a last ditch stand against the marauding zombie masses…

Night of the Creeps perfectly balances its humour and horror and all the various in-jokes don’t really detract from the unfolding story or tension.

Tom Atkins spits most of the film’s most memorable lines including when he informs the sorority girls their prom dates have arrived: ‘I got good news and bad news girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.’ Classic.
Every time he answers his phone he disgustedly barks: ‘Thrill me!’
The dialogue between Chris and JC is also suitably barbed and witty and the two display great chemistry. Adding even more insight and depth to the characters and their relationships are a couple of scenes that prove quite unexpected and touching, given the deliriously tongue-in-cheek tone of the film. as knowing and self-referential as it is, the film never becomes annoying.



When Chris discovers that JC has been attacked by the parasites and has taken his own life rather than become a mindless killing machine, he breaks down inconsolably at the death of his best friend. This is something that rarely happens in horror films. Usually when bodies of friends are discovered the action moves on as the characters don’t have time to react in any other way than to scream. They never usually display as much emotion as this.

Despite the hidden depth of the writing, Night of the Creeps is not averse to piling on the gore too. Stand out scenes include the bus crash where the frat boys fall victim to the parasites and a number of the splatterific exploding head scenes – which, thanks to some film called Scanners – are often sorely overlooked as great examples of, well, exploding head scenes.
When the sorority house has become overrun by the zombie suitors and Chris finds himself trapped in the garden shed with nothing to defend himself with but a rusty lawnmower – Dekker provides us with yet more gory fun and a moment that would inspire Peter Jackson when he came to direct his own splashy-red and rabid opus Braindead.

There is also a wonderfully tense scene involving JC trapped in a toilet cubicle while outside the parasites that have just exploded from an unfortunate janitor's head scuttle about menacingly.



Night of the Creeps is unpretentious and nostalgic bliss for those who enjoy a good old fashioned B movie. Viewers will no doubt enjoy the plethora of in-jokes and references to other fan favourites. Even those who aren’t complete horror geeks will still get a kick out of this irresistibly barmy and no holds barred romp.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Random Creepy Scene # 72: Darby O’Gill & the Little People

In the aftermath of St Patrick’s Day I thought it appropriate to feature what is perhaps one of the all time creepiest moments in a film about Leprechauns EVER!

Produced by Disney and starring a young Sean Connery, Darby O’Gill & the Little People follows the exploits of amiable town drunk Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) and his ‘hilarious’ attempts to outwit the King of the Leprechauns in order to obtain his fabled gold. Well, his attempts were hilarious when I was about 7 or 8 and was too young to realise the underlying pathos of this lonely old drunk’s situation: spinning tales of the supernatural and the fantastic to try and win his fellow villagers’ admiration and acceptance. Desperate town drunkards. Funny.

Anyway, Darby works as a grounds keeper for a well to do family on the outskirts of the village. Because he spends most of his time in the pub, neglecting not only his work but also his daughter Katie (Janet Munro), his landlord understandably decides to hire Sean Connery to replace him. I was much more outraged at the thought of this when I was 7.

When his daughter finds out that her father has fucked up once again, she storms off in a moody strop and falls on some rocks, apparently mortally wounding herself. Silly girl.
It is at this point that one of the creepiest moments in a film about leprechauns occurs, and subsequently provides sustenance for nightmares all over the Emerald Isle: a spectral banshee materialises in an ominous storm over the cliffs and slowly floats towards Katie with the intent of claiming her soul… The banshee is all eerily billowing cloak and hair, and she keeps her most likely hideous face covered by weeping sinisterly into her hands…


Up until now the film was typical Disney fair: all dancing fairies and comical town drunks, however the suddenness with which it shifts tone is alarming, with barely enough time to thrust your hands over your eyes to avoid seeing the ever advancing banshee. Forget the overrated Child Catcher in Shitty Shitty Bang Bang, this creepy character induces enough chills to freeze the tears of a distraught 7 year old.

If that wasn’t scary enough, along comes a death coach to claim poor old Darby, who has offered to take his daughter’s place in the afterlife. Yeah, NOW he decides to take some responsibility. How touching. In traditional Irish folklore, the death coach, or cóiste-bodhar, is driven by a ‘dullahan’ (that’s headless horseman to you and I). And this is Disney! Fear not though, there is a happy ending involving Sean Connery singing 'Pretty Irish Girl.'




Oirish Horror...

Shrooms
With this week’s St Patrick’s day celebrations still ringing in your ears, why not spend the weekend unwinding and descending into the darker side of Irish culture and indulge in a few Gaelic tinged horrors… While some of these aren’t exactly Irish films, they do have connections (some more tenuous than others) to Ireland and creepy Irish folklore.

Dead Meat (2004). Mixing chills with thrills, Conor McMahon's Dead Meat is an Irish comedy horror in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead or Boy Eats Girl. The first horror film to be funded by the Irish Film Board, it features a twisted tale of zombies, mad cows and cannibalism, oh my. After accidently hitting a man with their car, Helena and her husband bundle the body into their car and continue on their way. What with this being a zombie movie though, the body doesn’t stay dead and attacks Helena’s husband. Making a run for it, Helena stumbles across an isolated farm and battles a few of its undead inhabitants before teaming up with a local farmer and a small group of survivors to try and stay alive through the night. With quite a dark and unnerving opening, Dead Meat soon veers into overtly comedic territory, but that shouldn’t put you off. This is a film that wears its fun loving and bloodied heart plainly on its sleeve all the way to its surprisingly downbeat ending that recalls the best of George Romero.

Isolation (2005). Luckless and struggling farmer Dan (John Lynch) is so desperate for cash he allows a scientist to perform ‘cutting edge’ experiments on his cattle that will ensure they breed more copiously and speedily. The experiments have horrific side effects however and Dan and a small group of people including a vet, a scientist and a runaway couple find themselves facing something more deadly than just your average ‘mad cow.’ Sounding rather like an Irish and more bovine-orientated version of Black Sheep, Billy O’Brien's Isolation plays out as a dark cautionary tale warning against the dangers of venturing too far into the murky realms of science. Taking itself quite seriously the film does manage to muster a fair degree of tension and shocks, given the potentially laughable premise. The slow-build, dread soaked atmosphere eventually segues into a high-octane monster movie-esque final act, with a genuinely creepy beast picking off an ever diminishing cast. One by bloody one.

Isolation
Winter’s End (2005). Another Irish horror film featuring another sordid farm with dark secrets, Patrick Kenny's Winter’s End does NOT however feature any form of mutant cow or zombie infection. Instead, it unfolds as a taut and deeply unsettling thriller about a young man who is taken captive by a crazed farmer who wants to use him as an unsavoury means to continue the family name. Jack (Adam Goodwin) enjoys himself, a little too much, at a music festival in deepest, darkest rural Ireland. Drunkenly making his way back to the field where he parked his car, he discovers it has been stolen and seeks help at an isolated farm house. His initially amiable host, farmer Henry (Michael Crowley) soon turns nasty though and after smacking Jack around, chains him up in the barn. Turns out, Henry wants to use our hapless hero to impregnate his sister Amy so their family can continue to run their farm like they have done for over 150 years. Well written and acted, Winter’s End has quite a few surprises up its sleeve. With a refusal to stereotype or simplify its villain, events become increasingly claustrophobic and desperate. The underlying theme, which was also apparent in Dead Meat and Isolation, addresses the desperation of traditional Irish farming communities left forgotten in the dust of the burgeoning Dublin-centric Celtic Tiger boom and the dark times they find themselves dwelling in.

The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy (1998). A lose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Jewel of Seven Stars’, The Eternal was Michael Almereyda’s follow up to the haunting vampire pic Nadja. Troubled alcoholic couple Nora and Jim, together with their son Jim Jr., leave their New York home to go and stay with Nora’s Irish relatives in, you’ve guessed it, Ireland. They go to stay at Nora’s childhood home and are welcomed by her bedridden grandmother and her blind uncle Bill (Christopher Walken, sporting a rather dubious Oirish accent). Uncle Bill is in the midst of studying a centuries old Druid priestess whose bog-preserved corpse is kept in the family cellar. After Bill revives the corpse, she begins to appear to the other family members as an eerie doppelganger of Nora. With an emphasis on atmosphere and characterisation, The Eternal has a rather languid pace that ensures it creeps under your skin all the more effectively. Substituting Egyptology for Celtic Druidry, Almereyda successfully evokes a strangely ethereal atmosphere. The bog-stained priestess makes for an unusual antagonist and an interesting alternative to the more typical Egyptian mummy wrapped in bandages. An atmospheric and hauntingly melancholic film.

The Eternal
Leprechaun (1993). Aw, Jay-sus. Truly shocking, in every sense of the word, this twisted little flick takes the notion of Ireland’s favourite representative of the ‘wee folk’ and turns it on its head, resulting in some nasty violence and inappropriate splat-stick humour. Starring a fresh-faced Jennifer Aniston, who looks sufficiently embarrassed to be involved in such trite, this film spawned way too many sequels that (not shockingly) spiralled into further ridiculousness, including instalments that take place not only in the tough urban LA ghetto, but also in space. When Dan O'Grady returns to America from the Emerald Isle after stealing a leprechaun's pot of gold, he thinks he can retire and live the good life. Wrong. The leprechaun (Warwick Davis) catches up with him and O'Grady barely gets away with his life, just managing to imprison the ghastly creature in his basement. Ten years later, J.D. and his free-spirited daughter Tory (Aniston) move into O’Grady’s old house, which also happens to be in the middle of nowhere, handily enough. The leprechaun is accidently released by idiotic characters who only exist to provide him with some splattery fodder. Cue much running around and bad limericks. As luck would have it, the leprechaun can only be defeated by a four-leaf clover…

The Company of Wolves (1984). Ok, quite a tenuous connection here as this isn’t, strictly speaking, an Irish film, but it is directed by Neil Jordon, who is perhaps the closest thing Ireland has to a resident genre director. Having dabbled in horror several times throughout his career, Jordon directed the likes of Interview with the Vampire and In Dreams. Neither of these can match the eerie beauty or disturbing high Gothicism of The Company of Wolves. Co-written by Angela Carter and based on several of her short stories from The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves provocatively unravels as a feverish metaphor for the blossoming of a young girl’s burgeoning sexuality and her subsequent loss of innocence. After the death of her sister, Rosaleen stays with her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) who tells her cautionary tales of strange mono-browed men who turn wild during the full moon, and the dangers of cavorting with such gents.
The film unfolds as dreams within dreams and stories within stories. The studio-bound locations enhance the surrealism and fairytale imagery. Breathtaking and utterly atmospheric.

The Company of Wolves
Shrooms (2007). This film follows the misadventures of a number of American students, visiting a friend in Ireland and hunting for a fabled crop of magic mushrooms for the ‘trip of a lifetime.’ Once the gang find the elusive fungi, they experience terrifying hallucinations (or do they?) as the lines between reality and drug-fuelled visions disintegrates rapidly. Not only battling their ‘trip’ the students also come up against ghostly figures prowling through the forest. Or do they? Featuring a predominantly American cast, Shrooms was filmed in Ireland by an Irish crew. While some of the visuals on display are incredibly striking (or are they?!) and more than a little disturbing, the story begins to straggle as events become progressively warped. Shrooms is essentially a run-of-the-mill slasher film with some hallucinogenic imagery and creepy Irish lore thrown in for good measure. It’s an interesting concept that remains frustratingly unexplored as Paddy Breathnach rarely strays from a formulaic path. Or does it!? Well, yes, actually.

I interviewed Shrooms’ writer Pearse Elliot a while ago. Click here to read the interview over at eatmybrains.com

For even more Oirish chills, check out Francis Ford Coppola's debut film, Dementia 13... Its really rather good. Cheers.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Deadly Blessing

1981
Dir. Wes Craven

Wes Craven burst onto the horror scene in the 70s with his distinctive brand of gritty, survivalist horror with such titles as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes (both of which have been remade, with the former's 'reimagination' due in cinemas any day now). Before the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1985, Craven dabbled with a number of wildly uneven films including the made-for-TV Linda Blair vehicle Summer of Fear and his adaptation of DC Comic’s Swamp Thing. In between these two films, Craven directed the oddly interesting Deadly Blessing, a quietly haunting tale of fanaticism, obsession and fear. Starring Sharon Stone in one of her earliest roles.

Following the suspicious death of her husband John involving a slow-motion tractor accident, Martha (Maren Jensen) is visited by her two girlfriends from the city. They are slightly freaked out by the fact that Martha lives right next to an odd settlement of Amish-like Hittites ('They make the Amish look like swingers'), led by the rather fearsome and ill-tempered Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), whom Marsha believes somehow had a hand in John's mysterious death. A number of the young men from the settlement including hulking simpleton William (Michael Berryman – a stalwart of the horror genre) seem to have a morbid fascination with Martha and spy on her constantly.

Isaiah claims Martha is a marked woman and refers to her as ‘the incubus’ and constantly warns people to stay away from her. It turns out that Martha’s husband John was a member of the community and when he fell in love and married her, he was cast out and ostracised by his friends and family. They view Martha as a diabolical woman who seduced one of their own away from them. It probably doesn’t help Martha when Sharon Stone comes to stay with her. Eyebrows were no doubt raised at such a collective of brazen hussies!
It soon becomes apparent that someone, or something, is trying to kill Martha and her friends, and before long Hittites and ‘nonbelievers’ are indiscriminately butchered by a malevolent force that may or may not be human.


Deadly Blessing is by no means one of Craven’s best efforts; much of it is mediocre at best. However it does contain some of the most striking images and concepts that exist in his body of work as a whole. Preceding the immensely unsettling bathtub scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is suddenly pulled under the water by the razor-fingered Fred Kruger in a bizarre blurring of dream and reality, Deadly Blessing also has an infamous bath scene in which Martha’s relaxing soak is interrupted by the presence of a snake that has slithered into the tub with her.
Another taut highlight occurs when Martha’s friend Vicky (Susan Buckner) is stuck in a car doused with petrol and desperately trying to reverse away from a rapidly approaching trail of burning fuel.

The film’s undeniable highlight involves a darkly surreal and beautifully unnerving dream sequence in which clawed hands reach out to caress the head of a sleeping Sharon Stone while a voice eerily calls out to her, urging her to open her mouth. As she slowly parts her lips and opens her mouth, a spider lowers itself towards her face on strand of web and quietly enters her mouth. This unsettling image displays Craven at his best and demonstrates the director’s interest in the subconscious and dreams. Dreams and dreamlike imagery crop up repeatedly in Craven’s work, and this particular scene is up there with the most disturbing of them…


Craven carefully builds tension and dread with his effectively restrained direction. He masterfully lulls us into believing that the religious order are responsible for the attempts on the lives of Martha and her friends, and while his presentaion of them is largely two dimensional, it nonetheless remains cold and sinister. He makes great use of autumnal settings and the whole film is tinged with a strange melancholy, right up until the crass ending involving the ‘shocking’ revelation of the hermaphroditical killer, which is followed up with a second ‘shock’ ending (allegedly imposed by the studio) in which a demon bursts up through Martha’s floorboards and drags her down to hell, verifying that the superstitious Hittites with their talk of an ‘incubus’, were right along...


Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

1976
Dir. Charles B. Pierce

Loosely based on a true story, this quite often creepy little flick follows a straight talkin’ Texas Ranger as he attempts to track down a hooded maniac who’s been terrorising the residents of a small town in Arkansas, 1946, with a series of soon to be dubbed ‘Moonlight Murders.’

A documentary style approach has been utilised by director Pierce to lend his film an air of authority and realism. The narrator puts things in context for us throughout proceedings and paints a wonderfully vivid picture of post war small town America trying to return to some form of normalcy. Newspaper headlines flash up on screen and keep us abreast of the grisly goings-on.

Just after WWII, the predominantly working class community of Texarkana have welcomed home their soldiers who are trying to find work and battle the post war blues. Just as they thought that things couldn’t get anymore downtrodden, a lunatic wearing a sack over his head begins to menace canoodling couples on Lover’s Lane, attacking several and leaving them traumatised. Later on, another unfortunate couple don’t get off so lightly and the maniac beats both of them to death. As events unravel the killer soon begins to target unfortunate victims in their own homes… Soon, the town is in the icy grip of panic and fear.



The bulk of the film follows the woefully inept police as they try to track the brutish killer. It’s during these stretches that events become muddled and wildly uneven as Pierce seems to think it’s a good idea to mix elements of slapstick comedy with tense moments of genuinely grimy violence. This effectively kills the carefully constructed mood of the other scenes where the hooded psychotic wrecks bloody mayhem.
As mentioned, the cops are usually involved in some sort of buffoonery that decimates the eerie atmosphere, notably the deputy nicknamed ‘Spark Plug’, because, you know, he isn’t very bright and stuff. He drives the Ranger around town and generally riles the viewer with his idiotic tomfoolery at every opportunity. There is even a scene where he has to dress as a woman in an attempt to foil the killer. Hilarious. Yes, this hair-brain scheme was concocted by Texarkana’s finest with their infinite wisdom. The cops decide to stake out a few places on Lover’s Lane and pretend to be young couples. However as there are no women on the force, what with this being the forties and all women were ‘in the kitchen’ making home, ole’ Spark Plug draws the short straw and dons a wig and a dress and warns his partner not to get too frisky. Like I said, hilarious.

A terrific sequence occurs when a number of cops are sitting in a diner discussing the mysterious case. As they ramble on about the fact that they simply have no idea who the killer could be and the very real possibility that it could be anyone living in the town, the camera lowers and treks along the floor of the diner until it comes to a pair of familiar looking boots belonging to someone sitting in the very next booth. The killer himself! This deceptively simple and understated scene contains a hefty and unshakable impact.

Jason in Friday the 13th Part II
The films strengths lie in the several scenes featuring the hooded killer stalking and attacking his victims. The sight of the hulking brute wearing a potato sack over his head is rather unnerving and its easy to see where Steve Miner got the inspiration for Jason’s look in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) - pictured above.
The tension that stirs up whenever he moves into shot is at times unbearable, particularly in the scene where he bursts his way into a woman’s house after he has appeared at the window and shot dead her husband as he read the evening news. Said woman is unceremoniously shot in the face but manages to drag herself, painfully slowly, out of the house and into the corn field that surrounds her home. What follows is a continuation of the tension that was heaped up when the killer invades her home, as he stalks her through the field until she finally manages to get to her neighbours house and get help. While most of the night scenes are incredibly murky, it sort of adds to the gritty, ‘realist’ feel that Pierce uses to great effect.

In an earlier scene this woman is shown smiling uneasily at someone we can’t see, sitting in a car outside the grocery store she has just left, again implying that it could be someone who lives in town who could easily assimilate themselves back into community life and remain undetected after their bloody conquests. Chilling stuff.


An extremely odd and strangely disturbing moment takes place when the killer, having hauled a young couple from their moving car, beats the young man senseless and then shoots him before turning his attention to the young woman. Lashing her to a tree he proceeds to fix a knife to her trombone and then furiously blow the instrument so the knife repeatedly stabs the girl. Odd. And more than a little disturbing, particularly the close-up shots of his eyes as he blows furiously into the instrument.

Despite the comedy killing moments, of which there are plenty, the film still manages to maintain an air of menace and dread, particularly when the police enforce a curfew on the townsfolk.

The fact that this case was never solved also hangs heavy throughout the film, and although no one says it, the idea that ‘the killer is still out there’ lurks ominously in the background as the film draws to a close.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Final Terror

1981
Dir. Andrew Davis

AKA
Campsite Massacre
Bump in the Night
Carnivore
The Creeper
The Forest Primeval

A group of forest rangers and their girlfriends head up into the wild woods for a few days hiking. Unbeknownst to them they are being stalked by a vicious and deranged killer who begins to pick them off one by one… Trespassers will be prosecuted, indeed.

This probably sounds familiar by now, right? A group of people in the middle of nowhere, being murderlised one by one by a largely unseen and obviously unhinged lunatic with sharp things. The early eighties were saturated with slasher movies set in the backwoods of rustic Americana, where sexed-up, dope-smoking and, more often than not, idiotic teens from the city were hacked and slashed without mercy by inbred redneck cannibals when investigating strange noises in dark forests alone. Friday the 13th (1980), Just Before Dawn (1981), Madman (1982), The Burning (1981), The Prey (1984), sorry, getting a bit carried away, I’m sure you get the drift. ‘Killer in the woods’ films were popular in the early eighties.

There is something inherently creepy about forests that has always captured the darker side of our imaginations. Forests can be unnerving at the best of times: disorientation, isolation and unfamiliarity can all come into play to unsettle us as we wander through their leafy environs, especially when the last shards of sunlight flee from view and we are surrounded by darkness. It is then that the niggling feeling that someone or something could be out there, watching us and waiting to do us harm becomes utterly unshakable… The horror genre has dipped its toe, hell, flung itself into these murky depths many times before to exploit our fear of forests and the 'unknown' that could be lurking in their depths.


The Final Terror is one such film that preys on our fear of the great outdoors. Part slasher film, part survivalist thriller (in the same vein as Deliverance), the film boasts a cast of pre-famous people such as Daryl Hannah, Rachel Ward and Joe Pantoliano and much fun is garnered from watching them in such a film. It does manage to offer up enough surprises to lull us into a momentary false sense of security and genuinely unnerve in some moments.

The film has a number of stand-out scenes, most notably when the group of campers take refuge in their abandoned bus, only for the killer to taunt them from the roof, smashing the windows and creating utter chaos within. The discovery of a seemingly abandoned shack in the forest provides further chills as the wary campers explore its grotesque contents before panicking and taking flight back into the woods.
Another memorable moment occurs when Daryl Hannah’s character, the hippyish Windy is attacked and has her throat slit open. The killer, obviously a bit rusty, doesn’t quite manage to finish Windy off and her friends hurriedly try to stitch her throat closed again… Obviously being a slasher film, the characters indulge in the odd joint and a few even break away from the main group to go in search of a secret crop of marijuana. One of the characters, military obsessed Dennis (John Friedrich), also dabbles in some hard drug use and his hallucinatory wanderings through the forest also prove unnerving to watch and provide a menacing sense of paranoia.

Filmed with a low budget, much of the film is too dark to enable us to see what exactly is occurring. A few scenes are lit exclusively by flashlight which provides unnerving visuals and enhances the panic our intrepid campers are experiencing. The pace only really picks up after the half way mark, but the atmosphere conjured along the way is supremely creepy. Obviously we are aware that the group is being stalked before they are and tension mounts as the inevitable attack approaches. The music is suitably atmospheric and effectively adds to the tension.

While none of the characters really stand out, they are portrayed as a likable enough bunch and the acting is uniformly strong. When things become progressively nasty a certain degree of concern and empathy is provoked. When aforementioned nastiness ensues, the characters attempt to do what any rational group of people would and try to stick together and look after each other. It only becomes a little ludicrous when they decide to ‘merge with the forest’ in the same way the killer does and they cover themselves in mud and foliage.


Special mention should be made of this film’s sadistic killer. The director wisely only offers us tantalising glimpses of its hideous visage. Matted hair, clawed hands, covered in foliage and bramble, it moves stealthily through the forest and emerges when we least expect it. The twist at the end (well, to be honest I’m not sure if it actually counts as a ‘twist’ due to the fact that several characters discuss it at the beginning of the film, but they only believe it to be a rural legend) adds a whole other dimension of perversity to proceedings and a strange swath of pathos too. By the time these events unfold in the eerie light of dawn, you may just feel as exhausted as the survivors and our first proper loo at the killer in all its matted glory is more than a little unnerving.

An unexpected and effectively gripping yarn that treks into the heart of darkness in a strangely engrossing manner. Not exactly the Apocalypse Now of slasher movies, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Night of the Ghouls

1959
Dir. Ed Wood

Whilst investigating reports of dubious activities and ghost sightings at an old house in the middle of nowhere, Lt. Dan Bradford, a specialist in supernatural crimes and lover of opera, encounters the rather odd and obviously phony physic Dr. Acula. It turns out Dr. Acula has been conducting fake séances and ripping off bereaved individuals desperate to contact their dead loved ones. However, it turns out that Acula’s dabbling in the occult may actually have summoned forth a few bewildered and vengeful spirits and as the night unravels, it won’t just be his collection of skeletons that are going bump in the night. No. It will also be the rickety sets, plodding pace, atrocious acting and the unnecessarily overlong scenes of exposition rife throughout Night of the Ghouls. This is after all an Ed Wood production, so what do you expect?

Director Edward D. Wood Jnr. has (posthumously) garnered a reputation over the years as the worst director to ever work in cinema. This is not necessarily a bad thing as his legions of adoring fans will tell you. There is much fun to be had watching his films. More often than not the unintentional humour derived from watching such classics as Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 from Outer Space, are these films’ defining qualities. Wood essentially had more passion for making films than he had talent. Using the same band of faithful misfits over and over again, he would assemble a small band of loyal cast and crew and set to work filming his odysseys of inadequacy. He’s not called the ‘Orson Welles of B Movies’ for nothing.




A few familiar faces return in Night of the Ghouls, such as Criswell, lumbering awkwardly up out of his coffin to introduce the film and obviously read from an autocue. Well, I doubt they actually had anything as sophisticated as an autocue, but he is definitely reading from something. Either that or he’s drunk. When he finishes waxing lyrical about the ‘unreal’ and how mysterious stuff is, he lies back in his coffin and the film beings proper. Criswell’s voiceover intrudes upon the rest of the film at jarring intervals, giving us completely irrelevant information meant to act as characterisation or fill in for tension. For example when we are introduced to a couple of random cops Criswell informs us how long they’ve been on the job for and how long each has been married. T.M.I. dude. His voice also stands in for tension. He often tells us when ‘something strange is about to occur.’ And then, just like magic, it does. Spooky.

We are soon wondering what on earth juvenile delinquency has to do with reported ghost sightings at an old house, as an opening barrage of shots of teenagers doing ‘teenage’ things overwhelms proceedings. Criswell’s monotonous drone announces that juvenile delinquency is ‘the horror of our time.’ This is interesting in light of a recent slew of films featuring wayward youths wrecking havoc, mayhem and bloodshed in our cinemas. Films such as Eden Lake (2008), The Strangers (2008), The Children (2008) and of course Battle Royale (2001) all take this exact view that the youth of contemporary society is out of control. This is indeed an interesting concept, but one that is simply slotted randomly into the narrative of this film. Wood does absolutely nothing with it! We go from seeing purely titillating and ‘exploitative’ shots of jiving and cavorting teens straight into the unrelated story of the ghostly goings-on at an old, dark house by a lake.




The linearity of the plot is unsurprisingly a complete mess. We go from a police station (that looks remarkably like the lobby of a cheap motel) to seeing a young couple get menaced on Lover’s Lane by a vampy looking woman wearing a black dress and veil, lumbering out of the bushes at them with her arms outstretched. Being young people in a horror movie from the 50s, and an Ed Wood movie to boot, they don’t do much except scream and allow themselves to be awkwardly wrapped up in this mysterious vamp’s cloak and, er, die. Wood also slots in a completely unnecessary flashback of an elderly couple’s spooky day for night encounter with the same vampy lady as they drive in front of a back-projection of badly shot day for night scenery and talk way too much. At various points in the film we cut to this vampy lady standing under a tree or walking around ‘mysteriously.’ She turns out to be The Black Ghost.

A semi-sequel to both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, a number of characters reappear in Night of the Ghouls, notably Kelton, a bumbling cop played by Wood regular Paul Marco. Kelton refers to events in the other films when he says: ‘Ghosts, monsters, space people – I always get these screwy assignments. I resign.’
He spends the remainder of the film hiding out in his car, leaving it every now and again when he hears a scream, only to leap back in and hide under the dashboard. Eventually, when he musters the courage to stumble clumsily into the old house, he unwittingly saves the day.

Another reference is made to Bride of the Monster in the use of the old house that stands creepily ‘by Willow Lake’ where a mad scientist (Lugosi’s character from Bride) and his monsters (Tor Johnson) ‘were destroyed by lighting.’ Except they weren’t and Johnson’s shambolic and shuffling giant-klutz Lobo reappears in Night of the Ghouls. Lt Bradford’s internal monologue, coupled with Criswell’s helpful narrating, reminds us that Bradford worked the case in Bride of the Monster. As he wanders, seemingly aimlessly, around the house he encounters a number of things that remind him of the last time he was there. Well, go figure. ‘He remembered the cold, clammy sensation of the hand railing. Cold, clammy like the dead ... Yes, the railing was as he remembered it. Perhaps colder, perhaps more startling.’


One of the stand-out scenes occurs during a phony and downright bizarre séance. Sitting around the table are a number of fake skeletons, one of them is wearing a wig. A trumpet on a string flits past us and the head of a guy wearing a safari hat appears to mouth wordless nonsense. A cop bursts in and demands to know what is going on, only to be unceremoniously carted off by the lumbering Lobo, who gets shot a few times in the process. Dr. Acula turns to his guests who are still sitting awkwardly around the table trying to act shocked and scared and states: ‘Due to all the interruptions tonight, we shall conclude until our next scheduled descent into the everlasting pit of darkness. Peace be with you, my friends.’ This is pure Ed Wood magic.

Now, compared to Wood’s other directorial output, the most interesting thing about this film is that it is actually not that bad. And when I say, ‘not that bad’, I mean not that bad – for an Ed Wood film. The acting is still woefully inept but at least the continuity flows a bit better than in the likes of Plan 9, where Wood would consistently cut from night to day to night again in the same scene. The final scenes where Acula gets his comeuppance at the hands of a group of not very scary ghosts, does manage to evoke a vague sense of menace as he is bundled into a coffin and it is sealed up…

What the film possesses less of than Wood’s other films is that certain unsophisticated charm: while the sets inevitably collapsed around him during previous films, at least Wood’s enthusiasm shone through, whereas here, he just seems to be going through the motions, albeit slightly more competent motions.