Friday, July 26, 2013

Superstition (1982): The meanest witch you ever did see.

Today's groovetastic flick is a killer witch movie called "Superstition", a word that gives us almost the right letters to make the word "Suspiria" if you re-arrange them and throw the extra ones away.  "Suspiria" is a movie the makers of "Superstition" have definitely seen, as well as "The Amityville Horror," "Friday the 13th," and "The Shining." There may be a few I missed. Imitation is the most sincere form of exploitation in filmmaking, right?
Ahaha, Detective Hollister, was that Eckerd drug store receipt really worth THIS??
The witch in "Superstition" is Elondra Sharack, but she's so damn wicked, I wouldn't be surprised if her maiden name is Markos. In fact, she's such a prolific serial killer that she makes Helena Markos look like nothing more than a spooky old lady with a bad temper. Late in the movie, we learn she was executed by the proverbial pious churchgoers after being accused of witchcraft by a little girl named Mary. Turns out Mary was damn right, as Elondra herself demonstrates the classic Linda Blair signs of demonic possession (whoops, there's another movie the makers of "Superstition" have seen!). Alas, even though she has the power to make her face distort like the transformation scenes in "The Howling" (there goes that Xerox machine again), it's not enough to save her from being executed by drowning in a small pond. For centuries after, she wreaks a localized--but extremely violent--form of revenge on anybody who happens into the area of the small pond, which is bad news for residents of the various houses that have been built there over the years.
What is the appropriate microwave setting for a human head?
Something that makes "Superstition" a little different than other cheaply made derivative horror films is its efficiency. It doesn't bother with a lot of buildup, it just wants to start killing people, which it totally does. The cursed pond now has a large vacant mansion standing next to it, which is the scene of a double murder (Suspiri-errrrrr, yeah) when two teenage pranksters scare away a necking couple in a parked car, only to be microwaved and filleted by the witch. Yes...there is a death by microwave right in the beginning. You just KNOW it's going to be good when that happens. Never mind why a modern appliance like a microwave would be in a mansion that was supposed to have been deserted since the 1950s. 
Yessss, many yeeears ago I was in a baaaa-aaand, called Fleetwood Maaaaaaac...baaaaaaaa....
The house is on property owned by the church, and Inspector Sturgis arrives at the local parish to talk to new priest David Thompson about the murders.  It kind of makes you wonder why the church was never held responsible before, since Sturgis tells him "You also have standing water on the property, Black Pond. Kids like to skinny dip there at midnight, and sometimes they drown!" But never mind. The problem of the cursed house seems to be nearly solved, as another priest is relocating there with his family (apparently they're not Catholics), but before he can even arrive, a different priest is gutted at the house when a saw blade goes spinning off its base, embeds itself in his body, and keeps spinning until he's dead.  Sturgis suspects Arlen, the property's crazy-looking caretaker, for the murder of the two boys, but when he sends his partner to follow Arlen down to the pond, a witchy black hand with long fingernails reaches up out of the water and pulls the cop under. Yes, apparently driven by the motto of "More is more", the filmmakers insert four murders within the first 22 minutes of "Superstition".
The "Amityville Horror" priest really got off easy compared to this.
A little girl dressed in white named Mary keeps randomly appearing to people (shades of Sarah Collins!) and the people who see her never seem very curious about who she is and why she's there. Apparently, the freak accident that kills the priest doesn't stop the renovation process, and the Reverend Leahy and his family arrive to move into the house. Yes. After all that, people are still moving into this house. Not only that, the Leahys seem delighted by the filthy pond--one of them refers to it as a "swimming pool", indicating that they have never really seen a swimming pool, ever. One of them even jumps into the green water filled with pond scum and splashes around swimming. In the pond. The pond where a policeman was just drowned, and whose body was never recovered. When one of the swimming girls emerges from the pond with one of the cop's severed hands grabbing onto her ankle, she takes to her bed in shock and instead of getting the hell out of there, Mrs. Leahy says to her husband "George, we HAVE to STAY." These people are all nuts.
Now THAT'S a well hung elevator repairman.
This movie is so disconnected from reality, it reminds me of the more nonsensical Argento plots. Not only does the Leahy family still move into a house where the previous tenants were slaughtered and four people murdered in the past week, and not only are we told that local kids continue to neck and skinny dip in Black Pond even though people have drowned there, but there's an extended scene where the youngest Leahy goes missing and Sturgis refuses to allow the parents to help search their own basement. The parents actually go along with it, preferring to sit on their bed and worry about what's going on "downstairs". But the characters are such ciphers that we never have much time to care what happens to them, which gives the movie the feel of a giallo. The pacing is atypical, with many of the murders all occurring within the first hour of the film instead of the other way around. I counted 15 fatalities, 16 if you count when they "drown" the witch (I don't think it counts since she apparently doesn't really die). It's also very well filmed with a number of great sets, and more than a little creepy. The witch is expertly realized, shown mostly in shadows (that is, in her current zombie-ghost-witch form), with her witchy sharp fingernails and all. One great image is when Reverend Leahy is in a dark room and sees the witch's shadow just outside the window, slowly opening the latch.

"Superstition" was directed by James W. Roberson, a prolific television cinematographer who has just four directing credits under his belt, so it's no surprise that "Superstition" succeeds mostly in its visual presentation, which is usually interesting and engaging. Roberson keeps the witch mostly off-camera, especially in the beginning, which uses slasher type point-of-view shots when the witch is doing her thing. The music is a strange mix of an original Goblin-esque prog rock score and a constantly repeating interpolation of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique", which doesn't help the movie seem any more original. It would have been better to use it sparingly so the audience would quit remembering "The Shining". One of the more shocking murders in the movie is when the witch holds one of the teenage daughters down on the attic floor and drives a large spike through her forehead, but the strangely inappropriate musical cue going on in the background works against the horror. The plot leaves a number of loose ends hanging, such as the matter of the strange Arlen and his gypsy-like mother; their exact role in the plot is still a mystery at the end of the movie, mostly the matter of why the witch likes them enough to let them live near her pond without being fingernailed to death. I was also confused by what the little ghost girl Mary; she appears at the very end and seems to be an extension of the witch herself, so why was she so busy being all innocent to the people she appeared to throughout the movie? The lack of a decent script pushes "Superstition" way into the realm of the absurd, but this is a plus, as the movie would have been dreadfully boring if it had attempted to be serious. My favorite line of dialog happened when the two teenage daughters had an argument and one slapped the other, saying "Shut your bitchy mouth!"  It's clearly just a threadbare plot intended to string together a series of gruesome death scenes, which makes it a rare supernatural riff on the slasher genre. "Superstition" is an obscure little flick, but if you like your horror cheesy and extra bloody, you might dig it. Just keep your bitchy mouth shut, please.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Drive-In Super Monster-Rama 2013 lineup announced!

It's official! Look at all the lovely Cushing films in this year's lineup. I can't wait for "Shock Waves", this will be the first time I ever saw it on a big screen. Plus, seeing it at the drive-in makes it all the more special. See you creatures there, hopefully. Check out the link below for more information.

Ti West: Contemporary Retro Shock

I admit to being heavily biased towards older movies, and also finding that many recent horror films are utterly boring, obvious, high-gloss pieces of PG-13 shit made for audiences with the attention span of a daycare center. Yeah I know...that's what happens when you get old.  It's hard to find a director with any identifiable qualities that set them apart from others, and usually I don't even remember a current director's name. 

Ti West makes current films that are rooted in more fertile ground than most contemporary horror films, and his work does something that goes beyond just paying lip service to classic horror films of the 70s and 80s, he pieces together the elements of his films in the way a director from this era might have.  His 2005 film "The Roost" features a gimmick--an actual cheesy gimmick!--in a wraparound "horror host" format that has Tom Noonan as a ghoulish figure who introduces the film from a spooky set. The plot of "The Roost" is also about as retro as you could get, with killer vampire bats whose victims reanimated as zombies. West uses a lot of comic book lighting, giving the film a very "Creepshow" feel (as opposed to Bava or Argento). It's not a great movie, and in retrospect you can see West experimenting with slow pacing and coming out a little too zombified. But watching "The Roost", you can also immediately tell West has style, as well as a fine appreciation for what horror fanboys look for when they're too jaded to actually be scared.  There's something atypical in its sound design that really made the film memorable to me: there was actual silence in it. It's so rare to see a horror director let a scene go by without some kind of musical background, whether it's appropriate or not. When I saw William Friedkin's recut of "The Exorcist" in 2000, I was shocked at how he deflated the tension in his brilliant original sound design by adding ominous horror movie cues and audio stingers over certain scenes. Perhaps Friedkin was trying to make the film more contemporary in a subtle way, but West rejects this idea and makes his contemporary films more memorable because of it.

 2009's "House of the Devil", West's best film so far, is set in 1983 and is so evocative that it almost could be a film from that era. All directors are inspired by someone else's work, and West was clearly inspired by 70s drive-in exploitation, but what makes him remarkable to me is that he doesn't only want to show you violence. He is just as interested in creating a mounting atmosphere of suspense, and his movies aren't cluttered with constant dialogue. Even better, he bucks the recent trend of explaining every plot detail and providing reasons, motivations, back stories for his characters. These elements are there to be discovered, in case you haven't lost your ability to focus your attention on a movie for 90 minutes, but he clearly thinks the audience is intelligent enough to piece together the plot of a horror movie.  "House of the Devil" concerns Samantha, a babysitter in distress in a dark house in the middle of the woods. The majority of the movie follows Samantha through a few days in her lonely existence as a college student. Desperate to make some money, she responds to a notice for babysitting work and is lured to a remote location where she meets a very strange couple who want her to stay there with their ailing "mother" who lives in the attic. The gleeful thing about "House of the Devil" is the way it only has a flirting relationship with violence and gore, concentrating on the agonizing buildup of Samantha's predicament. There is some pretty startling violence in the movie, mostly confined to the abbreviated final act, and you only have to browse some of the movie's IMDB comments to find viewers who don't feel the film's payoff is worth "all the boring stuff" they sat through to reach it. I can understand anybody having a difference of opinion about any subject, but in this case it's clear to me that to have missed the point so completely means that the complainers have no appreciation for West's vision, which I consider a rare and valuable one if you do like suspenseful horror movies. West's films don't come from a place where horror movies are about the blood and the monster. Although his movies do have blood and monsters in them, to him what makes a horror movie is the fear of the unknown.

2011's "The Innkeepers" features a similarly moody scenario that is more about what might happen than about what does. A pair of young-ish front desk clerks in an old hotel moonlight as amateur paranormal investigators, collecting what they consider to be strange phenomena and posting their findings on their website. On the hotel's last weekend in operation, they are feeling the pressure to get a recording of something truly spooky to finally boost the popularity of their site, and they're anxious for the hotel's supposed ghost to show herself. West fills the majority of the film with an eerie quiet, punctuated by ominous sounds--something seemingly typical of horror movies, yet which so few filmmakers really get right. The film is filled with horror cliches, and by now there isn't much that can be done in any horror movie and have it not be considered derivative. What makes a horror director exciting is when they're able to make the same old stuff seem interesting again, and that's what I like most about "The Innkeepers".  Another thing that really took me by surprise is the way the plot seems to encourage interpretation by the viewer. West cheats a little bit by placing actual ghostly manifestations in a film where the script implies that the ghosts might not actually be real after all, but that's the kind of twist M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to recreate ever since "The Sixth Sense".

This kind of twist also showed up in West's segment of the multi-story "V/H/S" (2012), in a segment comprised of home movies shot by a vacationing married couple. In a moment that reminded me a lot of David Lynch's "Lost Highway", the videos are interspersed with footage that appears on the tape of the married couple sleeping in their hotel room at night, the camera obviously wielded by someone that they don't know is watching them sleep. The identity of the person isn't as exciting as we hope it will be, but it does encourage you to go back and watch the segment again to unravel the mystery after knowing the twist. 

It's worth mentioning that Ti West directed "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever", a sequel to a movie for which I had no love whatsoever, so I still haven't given that one a watch. However, after sitting through the excruciating experience known as "The ABCs of Death" (2013) just to see West's segment, I think maybe a sequel to "Cabin Fever" doesn't sound so bad after all.  "The ABCs of Death" is a 26-segment collaboration where 26 directors were given a letter of the alphabet, a budget of $5000, and told to make a five minute segment involving some form of death, usually gruesome. West's segment was so short as to be inconsequential, and like the rest of the movie, it was little more than a fleeting glimpse at something unpleasant, which didn't exactly equal entertainment. I won't complain too much about anything shitty Ti West does, though, because I really do like his style and I think it's really important that there are still directors who are interested in making films that go for the slow burn rather than the all-out blitz that ADHD horror audiences have come to expect. In that regard, his work and his career are absolutely crucial. I wish there was a way that he could become wildly successful, yet still not get a budget that would result in him abandoning this style of filmmaking for something overly elaborate and unscary.