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, 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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Six Creepy Mannequin movies

Mannequins are a strange obsession. I remember seeing an episode of "Hoarders" where this guy was so into collecting mannequins, he rented a separate apartment just to keep them all! They're also a recurring theme in horror flicks of all kinds. There's something unnerving about them, maybe because they're almost - but not entirely - realistic. Here's a list of six times mannequins crossed the line from benign retail accessory to shudder-inducing threat!

Scream Bloody Murder (1972) aka My Brother Has Bad Dreams

Originally released in November 1972, Robert Emery's Scream Bloody Murder was eventually retitled My Brother Has Bad Dreams, most likely to differentiate it from another, similar movie called Scream Bloody Murder released merely six weeks after Emery's film. This ultra low budget nightmare is a character-driven drama involving a brother and sister who are still coping with the years-prior murder of their mother at the hands of their father.  Karl is the brother, a young man in his early 20s who still has the mind of a child. Dangerously disturbed ever since he witnessed the mother's murder, the film chronicles Karl's descent into total madness after sister Anna takes a lover, a young drifter named Tony. Karl's obsession with mannequins is one of the film's creepy through-lines; in one scene he smashes one with a fire poker, he sleeps with one he keeps hidden in his closet, and in the film's deliriously downbeat conclusion he 'escapes' with one on a motorcycle, only to meet a tragic end that has to be experienced to be believed.

Tourist Trap (1979)

Probably the first horror movie people think of when you start to talk mannequins, Tourist Trap is a very creepy movie about a group of friends on a road trip who are victimized when they stop at a rundown roadside attraction run by the slightly sinister Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors). The film makes an awkward but futile attempt to disguise the fact that Slausen is the villain, giving him a bizarre plaster doll mask to wear during the attack scenes, but this is way more than a slasher movie. Slausen is telekinetic, and has the habit of turning his victims into mannequins. It's never quite explained how this occurs, or whether the victims are really dead. One terrifying moment occurs when Slausen, while wearing the mask disguise, chases final girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones) with the disembodied mannequin head of her friend Woody. He holds it up to her and the mouth drops open, Woody's terrified voice emerging and begging her for help. This uncertainty becomes the very thing that gives Tourist Trap its impact, as any attempt to explain it all would have been silly. The film's final image, of an insane Molly 'escaping' with a car full of her mannequin friends, is ridiculously disturbing.

Maniac (1980)

Notorious for its graphic violence, William Lustig's 1980 film Maniac also features a bizarre depiction of mannequins as surrogate companions for a deranged person, this time a serial killer who victimizes beautiful women. Villain in question Frank claims the scalps of his victims as trophies, each of them nailed to the head of a mannequin and displayed in Frank's claustrophobic New York apartment. The film's murder sequences are grueling, but one unforgettable moment comes at the conclusion, when the mannequins come to life and decapitate Frank in a bizarre hallucination sequence.

I Dismember Mama (1972) aka Poor Albert & Little Annie

Harrowing psychological thriller Poor Albert and Little Annie got a reissue a few years after its debut, under the more memorable title I Dismember Mama. Zooey Hall plays the film's lead character, a psychopath with mother issues, although he's no Norman Bates. Hall's character, Albert, acts out with murderous rage whenever he has the opportunity to attack a woman, but he develops a fascination for Annie (Geri "Fake Jan" Reischel), the young preteen daughter of one of his victims. Albert sees Annie as the one female who is untouched by the 'impurity' he finds in most women, and they share an idyllic day trip together. It ends badly, though, as any movie titled I Dismember Mama will. Albert winds up chasing Annie through a warehouse filled with mannequins, many of which are pre-decorated with garish makeup and flashy clothing. Reischel, who was about 12 years old when she filmed this movie, has a scene where she dons a mannequin's clothing, and imitates the exaggerated makeup, in order to disguise herself and hide from crazed Albert.

Lisa and the Devil (1973)

This arty horror tale represents what director Mario Bava chose to do after producer Alfred Leone gave him funding to create his dream project. The (very) loose plot finds a young woman named Lisa, played by Elke Sommer, caught in a dreamlike situation from which she cannot escape. Abandoned by her touring party in a strange country, Lisa encounters a man who seems to mistake her for someone he already knows. After accidentally killing him by pushing him down a stone staircase, Lisa later sees him again, this time as a mannequin carried by Telly Savalas. Confused and terrified by the experience, she seeks refuge in an opulent house presided over by butler Savalas, and containing a strange assortment of characters. But are they mannequins, too? Is she? This final realization predates movies like "The Sixth Sense", "The Others" and "Dead and Buried" by many years, but Bava's film is far more cryptic than those movies. In the most disturbing way, we know even less about what just occurred than we did when the movie began.

Don't Open The Door (1974) aka Don't Hang Up

An obsession with mannequins and dolls is one of the creepy elements of S.F. Brownrigg's Don't Hang Up. Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) visits the creepy 'museum' of collectibles that Claude Kearn (Larry O'Dwyer) keeps, many of which belong to Amanda's family. In desperate fear that she may reclaim the items, Claude makes a bizarre attempt to endear himself to her by showing her a weird tableau he created in an alcove of the museum: a mannequin dressed to resemble Amanda's deceased mother is seated at a dressing table, as if brushing her hair. When Amanda reacts in horror and anger instead of delight, Claude cannot understand why, so deep is he in his delusions. No mannequins come to life in this movie, but there is one moment where the killer switches places with a mannequin in order to surprise an unsuspecting victim.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Children (1980): The nuclear family unit goes up in yellow smoke!

Kids! You never really know what they’ll do, especially when you fool yourself into thinking that you do. We can say we did our best, but there is no such thing as a perfect, what if our kids one day decided to take revenge on us for grievances both large and small, even for mistakes we didn't realize we made? And what if it could happen in an instant, before we even have time to react?

This is the nightmare scenario of 1980 independent regional freakout “The Children”, a grisly flick that gives us an epidemic of mutant children who are suddenly transformed into deadly, smiling monsters. They seem relatively normal at first, at least when we glimpse them briefly during a bus ride home from school. But then the bus they’re riding in passes through a cloud of noxious yellow gas, the result of a leakage at the local nuclear power plant. The bus is found abandoned on the side of the road, and it takes the townspeople far too long to realize that the children have been transformed into grinning, pallid zombies with black fingernails, now possessing the ability to fry a human being alive in a matter of seconds just by making contact with their hands. Just as contemporary counterpart “Friday the 13th featured a mother’s maternal devotion as a motivation for hideous murders, “The Children” presents parental love for children as a source of unimaginable death.

"Ohhh I'm SO happy to see the children, and
nothing seems weird about this at all!"
Just slightly more outlandish than “Ft13th, “The Children” depicts a small New England town called Ravensback that serves as an unlikely snapshot of the changing family dynamic.  Although on the surface they carry on as respectable people, the adults in the movie are incompetents who bring harm to children, usually without even knowing they are doing so. The first two men we see are workers at a nuclear power plant, and their recklessness is what causes the whole ordeal in the first place; without any respect for the enormous responsibility associated with maintaining a nuclear facility, they decide to cut short their service call and head for a local bar, allowing a malfunction to occur. A thick cloud of yellow gas results, engulfing the countryside until it drifts into the path of an oncoming school bus.  Our female lead, Cathy Freemont (Gale Garnett), is driving alongside the bus, and she too passes right through the toxic cloud, zooming ahead of the school bus.

This becomes important later in the story, when we learn that Cathy is pregnant and that the effects of the gas are only applicable to children, but it’s also indicative of the script’s underlying message: things that seem inconsequential to adults are likely to affect children for the worse, and the adults are oblivious. The five children who were on the school bus represent five local families. Cathy and her husband, John (Martin Shakar from “Saturday Night Fever”), have two other kids, early teen Jenny (Clara Evans) and younger Clarkie (Jessie Abrams). Clarkie avoids being turned into a zombie by staying home from school that day, but Jenny is one of the cursed five.  When Jenny and the other kids don’t come home, sheriff Billy Hart (Gil Rogers) responds to the growing concern about the missing children.

Hart visits the first of the affected families, Dr. Joyce Gould, who lives with her female partner Leslie Button (Suzanne Barnes) and Leslie’s young son, Tommy (Nathaneal Albright). Joyce is a caricature of a man-hating lesbian, berating the sheriff even as he does his best to figure out what is happening. She also keeps Leslie nice and stoned on codeine, and instead of Leslie, she is the one who goes to find out what happened to Tommy.  After parting ways with the sheriff, she is lured into the nearby cemetery when she catches a glimpse of Tommy. Joyce discovers the hideously charred corpse of what was once the school bus driver, and when Tommy suddenly emerges from behind a tombstone and Joyce sweeps him into a reassuring embrace, she is reduced to a smoldering pile of charred flesh and bones in a matter of seconds.  This, true believers, is the awesome power of…The Children!
Proof of the goth aesthetic infiltrating society in 1980.
Another family in Ravensback contains an alcoholic wife and her enabling husband, who are waiting on the return of their daughter, Ellen. She does come back home, fries her mother alive on the front porch, and then presumably does the same thing to her panicked father when she chases him into the house. A third couple are presented as self-obsessed snobs who couldn’t care less about the fact that their young daughter Janet is missing; the mother smokes pot by the pool while entertaining her effeminate pimp of a houseguest, and seems to think the idea of her daughter’s disappearance is “exciting”.  These people are all punished, of course, by being burned alive—their deaths occur offscreen, but the sheriff stumbles upon the scene later in the film and notices that they were making a dinner of lobsters, which of course involves boiling the creatures alive. Poetic justice has been served!
Some mothers just have to play the martyr, don't they?
Even though John and Cathy Freemont are the protagonists in the film, they are just as flawed as the other parents in the town.  Not only does Cathy zoom right past a school bus in her car, but once the shit hits the fan in Ravensback, there’s a scene where she is too stressed out to resist smoking a cigarette, during which she speaks directly to her very pregnant belly and says “Sorry”.  John is cloddish to the extreme, even though he emerges as the machete-wielding hero.  For the life of me, I can’t explain why he discovers that the town is being victimized by murderous zombie children, yet refuses to tell his distressed wife that this is happening. 
"Honey, there's a trail of incinerated corpses from
the cemetery into town, are you sure nothing's wrong?"
"Just smoke another cigarette."
The family of the fifth zombie child, Paul, is headed by a stern farmer who seems like the type who could render a good whipping if he felt the need. There’s also an older sister who is confronted by the newly transformed Paul and doesn’t even notice that anything is wrong with him.  Instead, she starts to berate him for bothering her, which is a familiar behavior for big brothers and sisters everywhere.  Both she and the father end up roasted like the others.

Director Max Kalmanowicz racked up most of his IMDB credits in the sound department, and although he isn’t credited with this task in “The Children”, it’s interesting that the sound design is one of the most effective aspects of the movie. The action is bolstered by strange electronic blips and sighs, and I dare you to forget the weird sounds that the children make when they are vanquished—the only way to kill them is to cut off their hands, and when this happens, they emit a hair-raising animal howl as they die.
"Why did I wait for the table read to look at the script??!"

I already mentioned “Friday the 13th, which was released to theaters almost simultaneously with “The Children”. The two films share a few things in common, most notably a score by Harry Manfredini.  There are a few cues in each film that sound identical. The two films also share Barry Abrams as the director of photography. 

One of the most memorable elements of the movie is the fact that it depicts the death of kids, something that is still mostly taboo, or used for extreme dramatic impact.  “The Children”, however, gleefully presents this in as much detail as its budget allows, which adds to its unsavory atmosphere. The fact that the kids are zombies could have justified this in the minds of the filmmakers, but that doesn’t really change the fact that we see some rather extreme cases of the mutilation of children. A young boy’s hands are cut off on camera, a group of children are seen cowering in a barn while trying to avoid a man who intends to hack them to death with a machete, and there’s a scene where the man does just that very thing to a zombie girl who looks to be about age 9.  We also see a 6 year old boy being chased by a zombie child, and later his parents find his corpse in his bedroom…it’s worth noting that the filmmakers show a little restraint in the depiction of this dead little boy, sparing him the grotesque burned/boiled look of the adult corpses in the film. 

"Tina? Get my agent on the phone, will you?"
The cheapness of “The Children” and its ridiculous premise, however, keep it from being taken seriously, which helps soften the blow of making a movie that contains violence perpetrated by and against kids.  Even though most of the action is played with a straight face, “The Children” contains enough broad humor that it’s clear the filmmakers were laughing with us. I’m sure a lot of viewers still saw this as reprehensible even when it came out in 1980, but here is also a movie that is somehow on the side of its villains. These monster children really are avenging angels who punish their families, friends and neighbors for crimes that include polluting their environment, disregarding their well being, and placing the needs of children secondary to their own selfish interests.