Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Fly (1958): Life's A Bitch And Then You Fly

"Honey, I heard that once there was a
woman who swallowed a fly..."
I never gave this movie much thought as a kid, but a lot of the film's concepts are more interesting when you think about them as an adult. For instance, we all know the plot concerns a scientist whose arm  and  head  are  swapped  with  a  housefly  during  a  teleportation  experiment he conducted on himself. As a kid, I was waiting for the moment when we'd glimpse the bizarre makeup effects. But now I can't get past the fact that this movie  is  told from the perspective of a woman who was living a life of privilege and happiness, and in an instant her life is shattered. Not only is her husband doomed to die, but it's a hideous death where he loses his very humanity.

"Darling, I think my tab just kicked in..."
"Mine, too."
Of course, you could also point out that this privileged life she leads is what has really destroyed her family. Both her husband and his brother have "more money then they know what to do with" (their words), and their lives are the picture of luxury. The family electronics business has given our fly-headed scientist the wealth to maintain a stately mansion with a staff of servants to cook his meals and look after his child and fetch whatever gowns his wife would like to wear, but unfortunately it also finances the expensive equipment necessary to build a machine that can swap a human's head with that of a common housefly. Rich people problems.
"Why do you leave me alone with these servants all day, that
nosy maid's been reading my mail again, Darling I hate her!!"
I want this in my house. I NEED this in my house.
And perhaps worst of all, she is complicit in her husband's death due to the fact that she doesn't pay enough attention to her own child, who desperately tries to tell her about the strange housefly he's captured. She ignores the kid and orders him to release the fly, but after she learns about her husband's unplanned body modification, she also learns that the fly her son miraculously happened to catch could have held the key to returning her husband to his old self again. If only she didn't have her expensively coiffed head in those blindingly white clouds of happiness. 
"Mummy, if there weren't any poor people in the world,
would we have to scrub our own toilet?"
She learns the hard way what happens to people who suddenly don't fit into this society where it's so important to be like everyone else: you wind up with your head and arm crushed under a machine press, while your widow is forced to feign madness and go to an insane asylum just to spare your good name. In true 1950s fashion, a cop-out ending is forced on us, when what's left of her husband ends up saving this shining example of a 50s housewife from an extended vacation in an institution, and the fly with his head and arm is spotted by the detective who previously thought she was crazy.
Fly Vision
"Honey, when I gave you 50,000 Euros to buy patio furniture,
I didn't think you'd spend it on this tacky bamboo shit."

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Slayer (1982) - Vacations can be murder!

If you ever get the opportunity to take a vacation on a secluded island -- the kind you can only access as a passenger on a small private aircraft -- it's probably a good idea to first make sure there isn't a hurricane headed that way. You should also be certain that it isn't haunted by a strange apparition that wants to kill you and anyone else who is with you.
"This reminds me of that time I had an earache, went to the doctor,
and while I was in the waiting room a roach crawled out of my ear."
This is the case with Kay (Sarah Kendall), a successful artist whose work has been negatively influenced by recurring nightmares she's had her entire life. She dreams of a spectral humanoid creature committing gruesome murders in an unknown location, and she finds that the nightmares are happening more and more frequently. Her brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) arranges a visit to a small island off the coast of Georgia for a vacation getaway, and joining them are Eric's wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook) and Kay's husband David (Alan McRae). When they arrive, however, Kay is alarmed to discover that the deserted resort that still stands there is the actual location of these terrible dreams, even though she's never been there before. Is it possible her dreams are prophetic and the murderous beast is real, too? Let's consult the Magic 8-Ball:

The pilot who drops them off, Marsh (Michael Holmes), warns them of an impending storm, effectively stranding them there, and from there it's only a matter of time until they start being slaughtered. It only happens when Kay is asleep, though - the first to go is a random fisherman we never got introduced to. This happens while Kay is napping on the beach. Then that night while she's sleeping, David does some classic horror movie poking-around-the-basement-with-a-flashlight and is decapitated by a storm door. 
"I'll never doubt her again when she says there's a Slayer."
The next day, Kay dreams she wakes up with David's severed head, but then she wakes up for real and discovers him missing. Eric refuses to believe that anything is wrong (apparently he can't wrap his head around the fact that 4-1=3), but eventually foul play is confirmed when David is discovered hanging around headless, and suddenly they realize they're in a survival situation. Kay catches on that the killer only attacks when she's asleep, so what do Eric and Brooke do? Give her a sedative, of course. I have to admit, sometimes I love it when bad things happen to stupid people.

"We gave her that sedative because it was in the script, jerk.
Also, my resemblance to Gaylen Ross is purely coincidental."
When all is said and done, Kay is left alone and desperately tries to stay awake long enough to avoid being murdered in her sleep. She barricades herself into their lodge as best she can, but someone breaks in -- she kills him with a flare, but of course it turns out to be Marsh, who is still on the island for some reason. The house goes up in flames, and when she tries to escape she is confronted by the monster, which turns out to look like a cross between adult Macaulay Culkin and an anglerfish:
This is it! Don't be scared now!
But instead of seeing Kay murdered by the monster, we instead see her as a child, waking up from another nightmare of The Slayer. Was the entire movie we just witnessed a dream? Is this a flashback? Was the Slayer real, or were the murders committed by a human being? It's possible Marsh was the killer, or was it Kay herself, since she's the one with all the problems? Let's ask the 8 Ball again...

It's just as I thought: despite the fact that we stuck with the movie through its entire runtime, we get no definitive answers. We're not meant to know. 

This could have been an actual artistic choice, or it could have been a creative way to avoid using any action footage that didn't look all that great once they saw it in the dailies. The creature does look cool, but it only rears its ugly head for a few seconds during the climax, and even then it's just standing there looking at Kay. I don't mean to suggest that the makeup FX aren't great, because there are a few standout moments here, the greatest of which is an on-screen pitchfork murder worthy of Tom Savini himself. I wish we'd seen more of the monster though, and that ending really feels like a cheat.
"Hey, did you ever hear the one about the isolated vacation spot haunted
by a Slayer? It was a nice place to visit, but you could never live there!"
Small price to pay for such a creepy, atmospheric experience, though. The locations are extremely effective, as well as the sense of isolation and doom. I was reminded of the movie "Ghostkeeper" while watching this, which also had a similar plot, except it took place at a snowbound resort in the mountains instead of a deserted island. Together they'd make for a great night of Travelogue Horror, just add your favorite movie where people are trapped in an isolated vacation spot, and voila!
"Hey Darlin', I love your nails. Maybe you can do mine sometime."

Sunday, December 1, 2019

"Mansion of the Doomed", eye've been looking for you all my life and eye didn't even know it. My eyeballs finally landed on you, and eye want you to know that eye really see you. Eye get you. Eye love you. You made me forget all about "Eyes Without A Face", because you have the chutzpah to be everything that movie wanted to be but couldn't. Ubiquitous character actor Michael Pataki, eye also love you to my very core. Scenery-hungry Richard Basehart, tragically miscellaneous Gloria Grahame, lusciously skeezy Vic Tayback, perpetual wino Arthur Space, very young Lance Henriksen -- you all warm my heart and rattle my eyeballs. You do.

"Are you questioning my ability to overact?"
Basehart plays Dr. Chaney, the kind of arrogant surgeon who really needs something terrible to happen to him, maybe because he's uncomfortably attached to his beautiful young daughter, Nancy (a cheerful Trish Stewart). A minor car mishap causes her to bang her head off the windshield, and POOF, she's blind. This is the kind of thing that happens to *other* people, though, not the children of wealthy shithead doctors with vague European accents. Dr. Chaney quickly gets over his ethical resistance to performing experimental transplants with living human donors, lures Nancy's surgeon boyfriend Dan (Henriksen) to the house, drugs him, removes his eyes, and transplants them into Nancy's head. Fortunately his palatial bougie house came equipped with a cell in the basement, so he imprisons Dan there. Because even though he doesn't think twice about removing someone's eyes without their consent so his own daughter can regain her vision, it's not like he's a murderer or anything.

Well, Nancy has her moment where she wakes up and suddenly she can see again, and she's back to being as cheerful as the daughter of a wealthy surgeon should be -- although she's just a little concerned about why her fiance is suddenly missing, when he never told her he was going anywhere. But alas, tragedy strikes again -- when she's enjoying daddy's Olympic size swimming pool, her sight dims and POOF, blind again. And so begins Chaney's cycle of abducting victims and transplanting their eyes into his daughter. The first surgery doesn't leave much scarring, but after the second one, her face starts to look like she used a tumbleweed for a pillow. Plus, she doesn't really know what's going on anyway, since daddy doesn't tell her how he's getting these peepers for her.

"Can someone get me my Clinique products, and hurry??"
Meanwhile, the cell in the basement gets more and more crowded with unfortunate victims who now have empty eye sockets. "Mansion of the Doomed" conveniently avoids depicting how these unfortunates are dealing with their own humanity, i.e. where are they...eliminating? What are they eating? How are the men shaving? They do a lot of moaning and screaming, and even a little singing. Lance Henriksen does a lot of bellowing, too.

"Doctor, I've been having a little trouble in the sack lately...."
Gloria Grahame's character is Katherine, Dr. Chaney's second wife and Nancy's stepmother. She dutifully assists Chaney in these gross violations of ethical behavior, but eventually she sort-of grows a conscience and urges Chaney to stop (he doesn't). Unfortunately, this is not as juicy a role for her as 1971's "Blood and Lace", and I hope she at least got a decent paycheck. Her "Blood and Lace" castmate Vic Tayback shows up in a do-nothing role as a detective, but it's the kind of police department where someone can disappear and the police just say things like "Well, maybe he went to the country..." and that's the end of it. Even when one of the victims escapes the basement and is killed after running blindly into traffic, the cops are troubled by her carefully removed orbs, but they don't even seem to suspect the eye surgeon who lives right down the street.

First day on the set, Gloria Grahame finally looks at the script.
The thing you will remember most about "Mansion of the Doomed" is the excruciating eyeball violence that occurs. We see numerous instances of surgical removal of eyeballs, gaping eye sockets that aren't even covered by bandages, and one character suffers a gruesome fate involving the less careful removal of his eyes via an angry assailant's thumbs.

"Surely I don't need bifocals already??"
"Sorry lady, I only deliver the paper, I don't help people running screaming down the street."

"Your agent got you WHAT!??"
There really is something special about 70s-era exploitation films, and "Mansion of the Doomed" is a perfect example of how good bad things can get. Forget "Eyeball" or "The Headless Eyes", this is the one that will scratch that elusive itch you're feeling when you long to see someone's ocular cavity laid bare. Eye promise!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween Faves: Salem's Lot (1979)

1979 flick "Salem's Lot" seems to have been a watershed moment in many a horror fan's experience. Stephen King's name was already turning into a trademark, and the reputation of horror as a genre in marketable media was beginning to grow. That year in films alone gave us such unforgettable properties as "Halloween" and "Dawn of the Dead" (both 1978 films received their widest theatrical exposure in 1979), major studios put out "ALIEN", "Prophecy", and "The Amityville Horror", and director John Badham followed up his smash hit "Saturday Night Fever" with a big budget remake of "Dracula".

That theatrical release was, along with the simultaneous "Nosferatu the Vampyre" remake by Werner Herzog, one of the biggest reasons why "Salem's Lot" was eventually relegated to a TV movie. Originally George Romero was on board to direct, but the task eventually fell to Tobe Hooper, who apparently wasn't as intimidated by the restrictions of network television as Romero.

The fact that it was a TV movie was actually great news for me, since there weren't any adults in my life who were likely to take me to a theatrical horror film, especially if it was rated R. Since TV movies were always watered down and edited for language and violence, I don't think anybody was prepared for how scary the movie actually is. Most horror movies can gather a decent reputation as long as there's at least one memorably scary sequence. Put in two really scary parts, and that's a movie people will be talking about. But "Salem's Lot" has so many scary moments you can begin to lose count, and these high points are fairly well paced throughout the film's 3 hour runtime. There are a couple of early scares that are rather vague, some of them ending with a TV movie freeze-frame before any frightening characters are revealed. Hooper saves most of his fireworks for the final third of the movie, at which point they begin booming left and right. Nobody could forget the appearance of the vampire children in this movie, floating in the air outside bedroom windows, scratching at the glass to be let in. There's a frightening resurrection scene, where a gentle, small town everywoman comes back from the dead as a snarling, hissing witch while two of our formerly disbelieving heroes look on. The first full reveal of the main vampire, Barlow, is a pants-pissing moment where suddenly this demonic face is thrust into the camera with a guttural roar, and the reaction of the on-screen victim is the same as ours.

I must also say that this movie has the best representation of vampires that I can think of. One of the staples of vampire cinema is usually to have vampires that can 'pass' for normal when they have to, and often they'll suddenly morph into a hideous monster whenever the script needs a good scare. Not so in "Salem's Lot", where none of the vampires could ever pass as normal, and they are forced to lurk in the shadows and wait for the right moment to victimize people, manifesting whenever their would-be victims are alone and vulnerable.

The only thing that takes the wind out of the sails a little is the overly abrupt and far too pat conclusion, which also makes the mistake of moving the fate of a major character to a completely original denouement. This final scene was clearly added to give the producers of "Salem's Lot" the opportunity to spin it off into a series, and we can only image what might have been if this had become a reality. We'd most definitely have one of those rare series that vanished after a handful of episodes, never to be seen again (like the brief TV series follow-up to 1973 flick "Paper Moon"), but what a treasure that would be.

In addition to being just plain scary, "Salem's Lot" has got all your Halloween needs: a spooky "haunted" mansion full of cobwebs, more mist than a London fog bank, evil monster children, and that monstrously frightening blue-skinned vampire.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Halloween Faves: Beyond The Door (1974)

Halloween season favorites are on a lot of people minds right now, and one of my personal go-to Halloween movies is 1974's "Beyond The Door".  It was created by Italian filmmaker Ovidio Assonitis, a man known for producing thinly disguised copies of hit movies ("Tentacles", "Piranha II", "The Visitor"), and this one leaves almost no stone unturned when it comes to "The Exorcist", not to mention more than a few pebbles of "Rosemary's Baby".

Jessica (Juliet Mills, acting exactly like Juliet Mills) is a housewife married to a skeezy-looking music producer. They have a fabulous apartment in San Francisco, a fabulous car, and two darling little kids that anybody else would want to throttle. The daughter is about ten and is a foul mouthed bookworm, but the only book she reads is "Love Story". Many, many copies of "Love Story". The little boy is about 5 or 6 and drinks Campbell's Soup through a straw right out of the can. 

First words he ever said were "Soup is good food."

One day Jessica discovers she's pregnant, and not only is she pregnant, she's suddenly three months pregnant. Then shortly after that, she's like, four months pregnant. She starts behaving badly, like the time she decides to throw a glass ashtray right into her husband's gigantic fish tank that sits right in their living room. The husband doesn't even care when she tells him on the phone, but she keeps repeating "It wasn't an accident! I wanted to break it!" The reason for all this is, of course, she's possessed. Richard Johnson plays a suspicious character named Dimitri who suddenly shows up, glimpsed mostly in mirrors, until he's needed when things really start getting weird. It turns out he has a connection to Jessica's past, and seems to have been time-warped into this moment by the demonic entity that is now possessing her. There is a purpose, but the story is so underdeveloped that it appears to be little more than a rough draft that made it to the big screen.

But that's one of the ballsiest things about "Beyond The Door": it doesn't care that it doesn't have an involving story, it just goes full speed ahead and gives us re-enacted scenes from "The Exorcist" with just enough tweak to try and skate by any accusations of plagiarism (it didn't work, Warner Bros sued the production company and ultimately was granted a settlement in court in 1979). William Girdler's "Abby" was another possession flick from late 1974, and Warner Bros sued that production as well, despite the fact that it didn't really have many things in common with "The Exorcist". By contrast, it's easy to see why Warners won their case against "Beyond The Door". We get Juliet Mills levitating, an entire room going nuts with all kinds of stuff floating around on its own, her eyes turning weird colors, lots of demonic puking, diabolic voices, and best of all, her head turns all the way around backwards.

I love "Beyond The Door" for all of these crass regurgitated bites of exorcist pie, but mainly because it really does manage to be a scary movie. If nothing else, it works on a visual level, with lots of atmospheric lighting and strange sets. The sound design is another great aspect, as it shamelessly lays on the spooky sound effects, distorted voices, and hi-decibel audio violence. The film played theaters with a gimmick identified as "Possess-O-Sound", and I'm not sure what this was, other than the volume on the sound system being cranked a few notches. Turn up the volume on your home system as loud as it will go, and greet your trick-or-treaters with the scary groaning demon voices from "Beyond The Door", and your house will be the hit of Halloween this year for sure.