Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Unseen (1980)

"The Unseen" is one of those movies I missed on its first few tours of duty; I wasn't interested in it enough to beg my parents to take me to see it at the drive-in, and it didn't run long enough on HBO for me to get the chance to stay up past my bedtime and watch it. Little did I know, "The Unseen" is one of those numerous horror movies where someone has a dreadful family member and locks them away in some remote portion of a large, rambling house.

"Why yes, we've got the nicest old house you've ever unseen!"
Usually when our story joins these sordid lives, it is at the point where the crazy family member has decided to take up a career in homicide. In the case of "The Unseen", the 'monster' is an inbred Downs syndrome boy who is the result of an incestuous relationship between two siblings in an already crazy family. The character ends up being nothing more than a Lenny type who doesn't know any better, but the filmmakers see him as a cross between Frankenstein's creature and Sloth from "The Goonies". "Junior" is kept in the cellar of his family home by his parents, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick) and his sister Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). Ernest runs a "motel", and he keeps the mummified corpse of his father locked in there and has conversations with it. In case you're the last person on the planet to have not seen "Psycho", that part might seem really original and creepy to you. But maybe not.

I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me!

Into this cesspool of insanity comes pretty TV news reporter Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach), who is out doing a very important news piece on an ethnic festival full of people of Danish heritage. She brings along a posse made up of her sister, Karen (Karen Lamm), and Karen's 'traveling companion', Vicki (Lois Young). Karen is Jennifer's camera operator, and I had no idea what Vicki had to do with any of it until one moment in the film that seemed to suggest that Vicki and Karen were a couple. Forced to drive out of town to find lodging for the night, they stumble upon Ernest's 'hotel', and when they find out it's just a museum, Ernest offers to let them stay the night in his own house. The girls obviously did not read the script, because they agree, and before they even realize it, they're Unseen-bait. The first to go is the luckless Vicki, who begs off of driving back to the parade because she feels ill and wants to take a hot bath. After Ernest spies on her getting naked in the tub, she is attacked by The Unseen, who remains unseen through the entire ordeal. Vicki is frightened out of her bed, hurled around the room, and then dragged feet-first into a heating vent from which the unseen emerged. On the way down into the vent, the average-sized grate falls on her head and apparently kills her. We don't really understand how she could die from a heating vent falling over onto its side, but that's nothing compared to the fact that the villain is later revealed to be a 300 pound man who somehow climbed through a heating duct up to the second floor of the house and emerged from a shoebox-sized grate in the floor. In "The Unseen", you just kind of go with it.
Vicki's nether regions are totally seen...

....totally seen.

If she was chilly she could have just put on a sweater, geez, who climbs into the heating vent??

Back in TV-reporting land, Jennifer's businesslike demeanor is visibly shaken when her estranged lover shows up unannounced looking for a reconciliation. Having traced her to the Danish folk festival, Tony (Douglas Barr) talks Jennifer into a long walk so they can sort out their differences. Karen goes back to the house to "touch base" with Vicki (heh heh) and fails to notice that her head is now sticking out of the heating vent on the floor. She wanders into the clutches of The Unseen when she happens to drop a bowl of fruit right over the heating vent he's hiding in. Yes, the old heating vent trick happens again, which leads me to believe that this particular big old house must have been built with duct work that was intended to be an alternate living space. This time, his victim might have lived if she had only avoided wearing a long, dangling scarf, which leads to her getting a facelift courtesy of The Unseen.
"Look, I'm trying to find my motivation here but I'm starting to realize my part of the script is padding. Don't you think?"

Karen once asked a fortune teller how she'd die, and she replied "Face first. With fruit."

Virginia, who speaks few words but emotes quite emphatically, is horrified at the murders, even though she seemed to know that this is where it was all heading (she, alas, DID read the script). But Ernest is a sissyboy psycho, and apparently not only does he enjoy beating up on Virginia and The Unseen, but he also gets off on the fact that these pretty young girls are being iced in his own home. A guy's gotta get his jollies somewhere.

"I just cleaned that carpet!!!"
So the finale of the film finally arrives: Jennifer, fresh from her heated debate with Tony, arrives back at the house in time for a thunderstorm, the kind that looks suspiciously like a garden hose being sprayed against the window. Finding no trace of her companions, she ignores all sorts of warning bells that should be going off in her head and follows Ernest's voice down into the basement, where he tricks her into holding a large piece of duct while he runs upstairs and bolts the door, locking her in with The Unseen. We finally get a look at him after he scares the shit out of Jennifer and makes her go all grabby on the house's electrical fuse box, causing a flashing light show in the basement. She also steps on a nail (or something), and here's where things start to get a little hard to follow. At some point, one of these injuries (either stepping on the nail or touching the haywire fuse box) causes Jennifer to lose control of her legs, and she can't even bring herself to stand up through the rest of the film's climax. The Unseen finally gets some screen time when he tries to make her be his little baby friend. When he doesn't kill her, Ernest comes back down into the basement and attempts to strangle her with a belt. Virginia interferes, but Ernest gives her the beat-down while Jennifer drags herself away with her arms, darn those pesky legs that won't work! When Ernest punches Virginia in the face, Junior attacks him. Ernest fights back, though, and whacks The Unseen in the side of the head with a board, puncturing his temple with a long nail. Virginia regains consciousness long enough to see it happen, and she freaks.

"What are you crybabying about, Barbara? Look at my costume!"

Meanwhile, Jennifer has managed to drag herself, useless legs and all, out into the yard, where she hides in a chicken coop. She regains control of her legs long enough to stand and grab an axe, which Ernest wrests away from her. Then she's back to dragging herself, this time out into the mud, where she inches her way along the ground like a Jennifer-sized inchworm. Tony shows up in the nick of time, but alas...his leg injury, the same one that ended his promising football career, stops him from rushing to her aid. Just when Ernest is about to bury the axe in Jennifer's head, Virginia appears on the back porch and blows him away with a shotgun. She's a damn good shot, too.

"The Unseen" is quite lame, quite tame, and nearly bloodless. Without a full-frontal nude scene during Vicki's bath, it would probably never have gotten an R rating. It's hard to get past the similarities to other, better movies. It's got more than a few things in common with "Silent Scream", which came out around the same time but was at least a little more atmospheric, if not fantastic. It also had a more interesting cast. The script has some interesting things roiling beneath the surface, like the hint that Vicki and Karen are a couple, and some politics about Jennifer's unplanned pregnancy, but that doesn't make up for the fact that the story is contrived, silly, and not very scary. The girls are pretty pretty, and Sydney Lassick is excellent as the kookoo Ernest. It might have helped if Barbara Bach's character had been a little more spunky when she needed to be. She doesn't lift a finger to defend herself when she's threatened, and she can't even friggin stand up. A big liability is that we're supposed to be afraid of Junior, played by Stephen Furst, but it's hard to get past the fact that they're asking us to buy a handicapped man as a monster. I kept wondering why Barbara Bach didn't recognize that Junior was a victim. The script wasn't intelligent enough to have her show Junior a little sympathy and maybe, oh I dunno, not be afraid of him after all? If he'd refused to kill her because she didn't turn into a screamer when she saw him, they still could have ended the movie the same way and it would have been much more compelling. Bottom line: "The Unseen" won't make your head hurt, but it ain't gonna scare you so bad you lose control of your legs, either.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Bride (1973), aka The House That Cried Murder

A young groovy 70s couple walks through sunlit fields while happy, hornsome elevator music signifies that they're in love.  Barbara (Robin Strasser) and David (Arthur Roberts) are so in love they are practically glowing. They visit a weird unfinished house in the middle of nowhere that Barbara designed and built herself, just waiting for them to move into it and start a new life together. The catch is, Barbara's father (John Beal) hates David, who is also an employee at his firm. But Barbara is a spoiled rich girl who gets everything she wants, and when she throws a tantrum, he reluctantly agrees to give his blessing.

"Oh darling, I'm so happy but that fucking music is making me want to KILL SOMEBODY!!!"
We already know Barbara is a little unstable by the way she makes crazy "I'm going to strangle you" hands behind her father's head when he tells her she shouldn't marry David, but David is actually a sociopathic shit, as he proves on his wedding day. At the reception, which is oddly accompanied by a New Orleans style jazz ensemble, David sneaks upstairs with his ex girlfriend Helen (Iva Jean Saraceni) for a little passionate necking and they are promptly discovered by Barbara, who goes absolutely full-tilt batshit bonkers. Grabbing a pair of scissors, she attacks David with them and bloodies his arm real good, then goes downstairs in her blood soaked wedding dress and has a mental breakdown in front of the entire wedding party before running off in her car. Just like in real life, nobody tries to stop her.

That's the first act of "The Bride", a wacky 70s doomfest that tells one of the most freaked out stories I ever saw. You know, the kind of movie where nothing anybody does makes any real sense? That's THIS movie.

"Don't worry, this blood stain will never show in the wedding photos."
Up to this point in "The Bride", we can almost imagine something like this happening in real life. One spouse catching the other "in flagrante delicto" on their wedding day is something that probably happens occasionally, but after the massive wedding day fail, that's when the real strangeness starts in this movie. Two weeks later, David has his arm bandaged and is presumably back to work with Barbara's father, who invites David to dinner one night to warn him about how crazy Barbara really is. Apparently she's been missing for these two weeks, although nobody seems to be all that interested in finding her, especially not the police. You know, that's where most people go when a loved one vanishes into thin air, especially after a scene like Barbara's wedding day. But her father tells David that Barbara has a history of "sulking" after a crazy episode and that he thinks she'll turn up sooner or later. He also tells David about how Barbara used to like to torment her pet chicken until it attacked her one day in retaliation, which prompted Barbara to revenge-murder the chicken by slowly taking its head off with a strait razor. Slowly.

But not only has Barbara's father (strangely) not fired David yet, David himself is (strangely) shacked up already with the ex girlfriend Helen, and remember that idyllic romance montage at the beginning with the elevator music? It happens again, this time with David and Helen. Now they're glowing with love. David sure glows a lot, and quickly too.

"Welcome to my nightmare AND my breakdown! I think you're gonna like my light show."
The glowing does not last long though, as David starts getting strange phone calls from a woman with a fake-sounding Southern drawl who calls herself David's "answering service", delivering ominous messages from Barbara. Helen is targeted, too--one day she's home alone and a package is delivered containing a wedding dress. Helen assumes David has proposed marriage and puts it on, which really freaks David out when he gets home because obviously it is Barbara's wedding dress.  Helen is belatedly creeped out by the whole thing, and both of them have nightmares about Barbara that night as they sleep. First David dreams he's being stalked in Barbara's creepy old unfinished house, and then Helen has a bad dream about crazy Babs as well. But when Helen wakes up after David has already left the house, she finds a bloody chicken head on the pillow next to her. After freaking out in the bedroom, she moves the freakout to the kitchen, where she finds the rest of the bloody chicken in the fridge. When she hears footsteps upstairs, she goes up there to find the wedding dress pinned up in a door frame with a skull mask.

After another creepy phone call, Helen decides it's time to move out, and David's "answering service" calls David later to gloat about it. Since David is dumb as a box of rocks, he needs the mysterious phone caller to spell out the endgame: someone wants David to go to the house that Barbara built! Now why David would not go to the police about any of this really is worthy of just a bit of discussion. So far, his new wife has assaulted him with scissors on their wedding day and then vanished. Why the police aren't already looking for her is beyond me. But then David is harassed by a strange unknown person who has clearly gained entry to his home without permission and left bloody animal remains behind. Then this individual suggests that David go to a house in the middle of nowhere. 

"Hello, Chinatown Inn? I'd like to cancel that delivery order for garlic chicken."

"I'm starting to think we may be in danger here."
Did I mention David is dumb as a box of rocks? Well, he is. A baked potato would know better than to fall into this stupid trap, and a baked potato would have already reported being stalked and harassed to the police, but David just goes all alone to meet this disturbed person in the middle of nowhere in a weird house. Needless to say, David's day does not end with a sunlit montage of walking through a field while happy elevator music plays on the soundtrack.

I have to admit, this movie's cheapness and meager story are what make it so totally awesome. It's not all that badly acted either, which really helps. I should mention that Robin Strasser is probably best known for her role as Dorian Lord in the long-running daytime drama "One Life To Live". Iva Jean Saraceni actually appeared in two George Romero films, "Knightriders" and "Creepshow"--she was Billy's mother in the wraparound story.  Arthur Roberts is also a longtime character actor who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, his most notable genre appearances being "Chopping Mall" and BOTH remakes of the Roger Corman film "Not On This Earth".

The production values often make it look like an early John Waters version of a spooky campfire story, although the director, Jean-Marie Pelissie, uses a lot of atmospheric cinematography to create a genuinely menacing feeling throughout the movie. Sometimes it goes over-the-top 70s, with strange camera angles and over-saturated lighting effects, and other times it's more subdued. One brilliantly tense moment occurs when Helen thinks Barbara is in the house with her and decides to go upstairs and confront her while holding a knife. Why she does this instead of walking out the front door is beyond me, but I also didn't understand how she could so easily disrupt a couple's wedding day, then shack up with the groom after the bride vanishes. The schizophrenic motivations of these characters is part of the charm of this movie, although I realize it's just because they need to do these things to make the story move along.

One of the biggest assets "The Bride" has going for it is the soundtrack. A lot of it sounds like it was just library music, although there is a genuine bona-fide 70s doom love ballad in this movie. However, the thing that you will never forget is the Black Sabbath electric guitar spooky music that keeps popping up during the scary parts, like when Helen wakes up in bed with a bloody animal head as if she's in a scaled-down version of "The Godfather". Morbid and superbly overblown and melodramatic, this simple guitar riff really injects something into the movie that helps take it a lot farther. The experience is so silly, yet also unsettling and strange, clearly done by a director with a very good understanding of suspense and creating something interesting with a meager budget. I'm disappointed "The Bride" is his only directorial effort, his short filmography mostly consisting of production work and assistant directing. "The Bride" is not the kind of film that makes a director widely famous, and this movie is actually very reminiscent of the films of S.F. Brownrigg. Maybe that's why I was so into it!

In classic exploitation style, "The Bride" is known by numerous alternate titles, including "The House That Cried Murder", "No Way Out", and "The Last House on Massacre Street", which would leave the first time viewer wondering what massacre they were referring to (unless you count the chicken).

Sunday, April 26, 2015

April Ghouls Super Drive-In Monster-Rama 2015 - Saturday night!

Night two of the April Ghouls Monster-Rama was absolutely stellar, an all-zombie lineup that did not disappoint. For all the times I've seen "Dawn of the Dead", I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of seeing it on a giant screen, and the experience at the Riverside Drive-In was nothing short of fantastic. Given the difficulty in obtaining a 35mm print of "Dawn" for public exhibition, this film was a BluRay projection, and it looked great. 

Aside from the experience of a seemingly plausible version of what is certainly the apocalypse, watching "Dawn of the Dead" is a doubly strange experience for those of us who visited Monroeville Mall in the 1970s and early 80s. If the film hadn't been made, many of these images would have been distant memories for most of us--the ice rink, the fountains, that courtyard with the weird clock, all of that is long gone. Seeing "Dawn" larger than life was pretty amazing.

I wasn't prepared, however, for just how fantastic it was to see "Zombie" big screen, at a drive-in. After all, I had been wanting that experience since I was about 9 or 10 years old. We went to the drive-in to see "Silent Scream" and as we left, we were given a flyer promoting next week's feature: "Zombie".

See? I still have it! Well, what's left of it, anyway. For some reason, I couldn't get anybody to bring me back next week to see this movie in 1980. But here was my big chance, and "Zombie" was mind boggling on the drive-in screen, very immersive and a different experience to watching it at home for sure. I still think Fulci's zombies in this flick are among the best ever, not much matches them for sheer creepiness and vicious attacks. That graphic scene where the four heroes discover the body of Mrs. Menard being devoured by zombies is one of those memorably shocking moments that sticks with you after you've seen it.

Speaking of shocking moments, one of the more weirdly upsetting on-screen deaths occurs in the utterly nonsensical but really scary "House By The Cemetery": an unlucky visitor to the creepy title house finds herself slowly gouged to death by a zombie doctor wielding a sharp fire poker. I still can't figure out why she doesn't fight back with her hands, just like I can't figure out why the babysitter later mops up the huge bloody mess as if nothing's going on. But in a Fulci movie you do not ask these questions, you just go with it. "House By The Cemetery" was a great addition to the Saturday night festival.

But if you've never seen the 1980 film "Bloodeaters", aka "Toxic Zombies", then you were in for a real treat, a true low budget oddity that is exactly the kind of thing that was always lurking as the second or third (or even fourth) feature of a lineup just like tonight's. To be exact, it is not a zombie movie, since the ghoulish marauders in the film are not dead people. They're actually a group of hippie type marijuana harvesters hiding out in a state park. After they murder two federal agents who had been on their trail, the government sends a renegade alcoholic crop duster to poison the pot crop with an experimental highly toxic chemical. The hippies get covered in the chemical, which turns them into homicidal lunatics who attack normal people with machetes, knives, and various other sharp objects. A park ranger and his family get caught up in the mayhem, as do a pair of "kids" made orphans by the "zombies". It's ultra low budget stuff and very much in the spirit of the drive-in.

The turnout for this weekend was very strong on both Friday and Saturday, a lot of people came out to share in the excitement of seeing these kinds of films exhibited and enjoyed by a collective audience of enthusiastic fans. It's a feeling that keeps us coming back for more!

Make sure you plan on joining us in September for the next Monster-Rama film festival. Keep tabs on what's happening on Facebook at The Drive-In Super Monster-Rama Page! Later and much love, fellow monster kids!

Adrienne Barbeau in the house...RESPECT!!

Tom Atkins!!!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

April Ghouls Super Drive-In Monster-Rama 2015 - Friday night!

As you may have picked up already from my Facebook page, I get a little excited over the local bi-annual horror festival that happens at The Riverside Drive-In. You would too, fellow horror geek, if you lived here. And this weekend is another "April Ghouls" horror marathon, now an annual event just like its late summer cousin, The Super Drive-In Monster-Rama. The Riverside was more crowded than I recall seeing it before, hopefully a good sign that we'll be getting more of these events in the future. I got to see inside the projection booth this time and check out the fantastic digital projector the Riverside acquired, right beside the classic 35mm projector. The April Ghouls festival incorporates both digital projections and standard film.

First up was "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", something I've never seen at a drive-in before. I did see it once in a crowded theater, with the sound turned down so low that all I really heard was people chewing popcorn around me. But in my car, I was able to turn it up as loud as I wanted to, and the sound design is fantastic in the new 4k restoration.  It's been a while since I've seen the movie, and I haven't watched it since Marilyn Burns passed away recently. I have to say its ability to shock and disturb can go undiminished, especially Marilyn's performance. She's absolutely feral in the final third of the film where she has to fight for her life, and the way she just throws herself into it is stunning. The first two murders, Pam and Kirk, also are chilling in the way they happen so suddenly, brutally, and seemingly out of nowhere. It always gives me the creeps the way Pam is sitting outside on the swing, completely unaware that inside the house her boyfriend is already dead. After being grabbed by Leatherface in that stunning shot where he picks her up from behind, she's hung on a meathook and must then watch this bizarre lunatic saw off his head and extremities with a chain saw. The final dehumanization she suffers is when she's apparently removed from the hook (off screen) and then stored in a freezer while still alive. The matter of fact way this all happens is one of the scariest things about the movie.

"The Evil Dead" is one that I've seen big screen before, although not during its original release in 1981. I like the first two films, don't really care for "Army of Darkness" (as in, I don't ever want to sit through it again in my life), but the first film still has a sense of cheapness and mystery about it that I love. It's not as jokey as the second one, and the fact that most of it is played with a straight face is what I love about it. The fantastic possession and demon scenes are so inventive and cool, especially the stop motion faces when the demons themselves actually seem to manifest for a moment before disappearing at the end of the movie.

Third feature, "Night of the Demons", well....maybe the less said about it, the better. After the two trailblazers that came before it, this movie is clearly out of its league, instead seeming more like it's assembled from other parts of better movies. It has a playful self-awareness, as if it knows how silly it's being, but it never gets around to actually being scary. The casio keyboard soundtrack does not help, either. What it does have going for it is some fantastic makeup and set design, as well as a great performance by scream queen Linnea Quigley, who has some trouble with her lipstick in this movie.

And speaking of derivative, Lamberto Bava's "Demons" capped off the evening in a spectacular way. Another big screen first for me, "Demons" has long been a personal favorite of mine. Although it clearly takes its concept from "The Evil Dead", it goes for the gold with a nearly unending series of mutilations: scalpings, lynchings, stabbings, throat gougings, all sorts of mayhem are all featured front and center in this movie, and are clearly the only reason it exists. The almost total lack of plot and plausible characters actually helps the movie rather than hurting it, since any kind of attempt to tell a more elaborate story here would have derailed it. "Demons" is a purely visual and visceral experience, and if you give any thought to just how ridiculous it all really is, then you're thinking about it way too much.

So that was the Friday lineup for the 2015 April Ghouls Drive-in Monster-Rama, four fantastic drive-in movies from a bygone era. Well, actually only the first two were probably true drive-in movies, since home video was already taking over the market by the time "Night of the Demons" and "Demons" rolled along, but they all play very well late at night on a big screen in a dark field.

Make sure to check out the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama Page on Facebook! Hope to see you there tonight!!