FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

May 31, 2006

Final Girl Has Risen from the Grave

Just imagine...there I was, trapped underneath a pile of debris on the bottom of Crystal Lake. Damn that telekinetic Lar Park Lincoln and her resurrected father!

I thought that perhaps, finally, this was truly the end of me. I lay under that crumbled dock for weeks! Rotting! Stinking! All chained up with no one to love kill!

Lucky for me, however, a couple of horny teens came putt-putt-putting along the lake in their own personal Love Boat. Also lucky for me is the fact that there are high-voltage power cables running along the sandy lake floor! Even luckier for me- can you believe it? I should play Lotto, I swear!- the horny teens' anchor plowed right into that power cable!

With a mighty "ZZZAAKKK!!", I broke free from my chains (much like Wilson Phillips), rose up from the watery depths, and thanked the horny teens for their with the business end of my speargun. And no, silly, that's not a euphemism!

So I'm back...a wee bit waterlogged, a tiny bit slimy, sorta oozy...but back and better than ever! I'm a-puttin' on a fresh hockey mask and a-gettin' down to business.

Ki-ki-ki
Ma-ma-ma
Do-do-do
Re-re-re
Mi-mi-mi

May 19, 2006

Ghost Week Day 9: The Screaming Woman

All right, I need to get this out of the way up front: there are no ghosts in The Screaming Woman. I thought there would be, but alas, no.

Phew...there. Now hopefully when we get to the end of this thing you won't be as disappointed as I was.

The Screaming Woman is the title of an episode of Ray Bradbury Theatre...a show I loved to death when it was on in the mid-late 80s. I found a DVD with about 15 episodes from various seasons, and I figured The Screaming Woman would be good for some supernatural fun. Oh, how wrong I was.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Ray Bradbury Theatre was simply that: each episode was an adaptation of a Bradbury story, usually featuring guest stars the likes of William Shatner and James Coco. The intro to each episode was virtually the same: Bradbury himself, in his cluttered-beyond-belief office, would pick up an object of "story inspiration"- then it'd fade right into that episode's story.

Somehow, Bradbury's item of choice for The Screaming Woman was a dousing rod, given to him by some random crazy old guy whilst Bradbury was out...presumably birdwatching. Yeah, it's a stretch, but you know writers- where do they get their ideas?!

Drew Barrymore (in that post-ET, pre-comeback era) stars as Heather, an easily distracted young girl who spends her time reading EC comics and imagining that the monsters and such found on the four-color pages are real. Whilst parked on her butt reading comics one afternoon (instead of buying ice cream, like she should be), Heather hears the faint sounds of a woman screaming coming from the nearby woods. She follows the sounds into the trees and stops when she hears ghostly cries and feels a ghostly wind on her ghostly face.

Heather tells everyone she knows- her parents, her friends- about the voice in the woods, but no one believes her. At dinner, her mother notes that speaking of screaming, their neighbors the Nesbitts were yelling at each other again last night. Then, the screaming stopped!

Golly, I wonder where this is going.

That night, Heather gets her Encyclopedia Brown on and calls on Mr Nesbitt. He'e sorta sweaty, and acts real nervous when Heather inquires as to the whereabouts of the missus. Mr Nesbitt offers Heather a drink, and she rightly hightails it outta there.

Even later that night, Heather sneaks out of bed and heads back into the woods. She hears the ghostly screams again- and she's tackled by Mr Nesbitt! I never saw it coming! Luckily, Heather's father followed her into the woods- he konks the evil Mr Nesbitt on the head with a flashlight, and everything is OK.

The po-po are called in and start digging where Heather heard the screams- gasp! There's a wooden coffin! Gasp Part 2! Mrs Nesbitt is inside- still alive! Heather has saved the day. Bully for her.

Maybe I'm too grown-up and jaded for Ray Bradbury Theatre now...or maybe The Screaming Woman was simply a stinker of an episode. Time will tell. Had I written this, however, the last act would've gone like this:

Heather gets out of bed and goes to the spot in the woods. Mr Nesbitt attacks her, but Mrs Nesbitt- who is actually dead; I mean, who goes through the trouble of putting someone in a big coffin, hauling it out to the woods and burying it- and not even killing her? If you're going to bury her alive, just bury her in the dirt- why put her in a coffin and give her all that air? Just get it over with, dude!

Err...anyway...yes. Mrs Nesbitt claws her way out of the earth as a zombie, kills Mr Nesbitt, and...I don't know. Then she explodes.

Boo on this one, Ray Bradbury! I give it 3 out of 10 my ending is better!s.

May 18, 2006

Ghost Week Day 8: The Shining

"We're all gonna have a real good time."

Yes, folks, it's time to discuss one of the Big Mother Ghost Movies, Stanley Kubrick's beautiful, messy masterwork of horror, 1980's The Shining.

Most genre fans, if not just plain ol' movie fans, know the film's plot by now. Meet...the Torrance family. Father Jack (Jack Nicholson) is a frustrated writer and recovering alcoholic. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) tries her best to keep the family together despite all the problems. What she lacks in self-esteem she more than makes up for with love for her son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny's gifted with "the shining", a psychic ability that allows him to see glimpses of the past, present, and future. Not entirely sure how to deal with his visions, Danny has invented Tony, the boy who lives in Danny's mouth and "tells him things".

After losing his teaching position, Jack takes the job of caretaker for the Overlook Hotel while it's closed up for the long Colorado winter. Soon after the Torrances are shut up inside the sprawling hotel, the malevolent forces of the Overlook begin to manifest themselves, calling to Jack. Already in a position of instability mentally, Jack soon descends into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son by "chopping them up into pieces" with an axe. With the help of hotel cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), who also "shines", Wendy and Danny escape the Overlook and its raging caretaker. After killing Dick, Jack becomes lost in the hedge maze outside the hotel and ends up freezing to death in the brutal cold night.

It had been some time since I'd seen The Shining, and while I've always enjoyed it (and gotten some good creepy scares out of it), what struck me most while watching it today was the beauty of the whole thing. Visually, The Shining is one of the most stunning films I've ever seen- finding a horror movie to top it in that regard would be no easy task.

The opening sequences of the Torrance family VW Beetle driving to the Overlook are breathtaking...with the mountainous scenery, that's unavoidable. However, Kubrick effectively uses the dirge-like sounds of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and sweeping camera shots to effuse the sunny landscape with a surprising feeling of bottomed-out dread. The camera, so high above the tiny yellow car, follows along- an unseen force travelling right behind Jack until eventually the car is overtaken and the camera moves on to the hotel itself, grand and imposing. Even over my lunchtime ravioli, the sequence was chilling.

The Overlook Hotel is an evil place...it's got its ghosts. It's got a bloody history which may or may not have to do with the fact that it's built on the site of an Indian burial ground. What's unusual about this story, however, is the fact that the hotel isn't obviously haunted. It's a perfectly functional, brightly lit, popular resort hotel...until the caretaker takes over. What is it that amps up the evil energy in the building? Who knows. Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson don't tell us.

Much of The Shining is open to interpretation. What exactly lurks in Room 237? Again, who knows. We do, however, know that it's real, as are all of the ghosts in the Overlook. They don't simply pass through walls, they don't fade away- whatever they are, they're as real as you or I. They can pour you a drink, they can roll you a ball...they can unlock doors and leave bruises on a young boy's throat. Beyond that, however, they need the "caretaker" to capitulate to their desires before they can claim their victims. It's the caretaker, not the ghosts, that chop families up into bits.

The title placards used during the film subtly show the build in intensity as events reach a fevered pitch- the leisurely pace of "one month later" gives way to daily updates ("Thursday") which give way to specific hours. Despite this seemingly frantic pace, there's no sense of linear time in the Overlook itself...events crisscross back and forth, while the past, present, and future are all liquid, running into and over one another repeatedly. Everyone, it seems, has their role to play as events play out time and time again. Charles Grady has been a caretaker, so has Delbert Grady...here's Jack Torrance in 1980, and there he is in a photograph dated 1921. Is it reincarnation? Maybe, maybe not. While Jack is told he's "always been the caretaker" and Jack himself expresses feelings of deja vu, we have no clue who was the caretaker the year before Jack or the year before Grady, for that matter. Various characters intone the phrase "forever and ever" repeatedly, as if there is no beginning or end to anything at the Overlook. Additionally in that regard, it's very telling that Jack's life ends inside of a maze- he's trapped in the cycle of time, consumed at last by the hotel.

While Jack Nicholson's performance is the one that people remember from The Shining, I've always found it to be way too over-the-top. Occasionally there are true flashes of brilliance, but they come in the quiet moments; his reaction to Wendy's accusations when she finds bruises on Danny's neck, for example. Nicholson conveys surprise, confusion, anger, and detachment without uttering a word. As he goes deeper into "Crazytown", though, it's such an obvious act that to me, any potential terror is taken out of the equation. Folks might disagree with me because everyone loves the "Here's Johnny!" and "Honey, I'm home" quips, but watch it all again and see- particularly during his conversations with Lloyd, the ghostly bartender. Nicholson mugs, rolls his eyes, wags his tongue, shucks, and jives as he acts "insane", and it's all put-upon to the point of distraction. We shouldn't be laughing at him- this man has descended far enough into madness that he's got an uncontrollable bloodlust for his wife and young son. He's a monster, but I don't think that ever really comes across effectively. The role, I think, would have been served better by a more understated performance.

The performance that does knock me out throughout the film is that by Shelley Duvall. The nervous tics and slight stutters during a calm conversation with the child psychologist early on betray so much about Wendy Torrance; as she attempts to rationalize her husband's violent outbursts, her cigarette ash grows longer...and Duvall's line readings are so effortless that it seems as if she's not acting at all. Whereas Jack Nicholson acts crazy, even at her most manic Duvall doesn't get all wrapped up in histrionics and obvious attempts at acting scared- she simply is. She's bleary-eyed and terrified, but most importantly, she's confused by her husband- she doesn't understand what's happening and why he's suddenly turned homicidal. It's an outstanding, amazing performance.

Aside: is it just me, or does Danny sport the best outfits in this movie? I should be ashamed of wanting to dress like a 6-year-old boy from 1980, but he's such a little fashion plate. His sweaters are fucking rad.

Kubrick manages to induce feelings of being trapped in a space where you wouldn't expect to experience them: the huge, sprawling hotel. During the tour of the building, Wendy comments that she'll need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere she goes so she won't get lost. How could cabin fever set in in such vast space? It seems impossible, but the audience experiences it firsthand thanks to Kubrick's brilliant shot composition and framing. There are hundreds of instances where the director uses symmetry in the shots, putting the focus directly in the center of the frame. It's a confrontational, objective, and detached view, and yet the limited scope leaves the viewer feeling cramped, even in the largest rooms. He very frequently adds the ceiling in the shot as well, to heighten the claustrophobic effect. Some examples:

Methinks me smells a lietmotif.

And yeah, there they are- those damn creepy Grady Girls.

While it's not a flawless film, The Shining is a damn fine horror movie that loses little impact over the years, even through repeated viewings. It seems I find something new to admire about it every time I see it. Visually, it's a stunning achievement. The Overlook Hotel is one bad, bad place...but only sometimes. I give it 9 out of 10 rocket ship sweaters.

FYI, there's a fantastic page of trivia about The Shining over at imdb.com. Follow this link.

May 17, 2006

Ghost Week Day Off: 2

Sorry, kids, I got all wrapped up in a videogame today and ran out of time to watch a movie. Those damn X-Men and their adventures! You know how it goes- "I'll just play a little more until I get to a stopping point." "Well, I really wanna see what happens next." "But...I have to rescue Beast right this minute!" and so on until I've lost all track of time, I've fused with my couch, and I've grown a big ZZ Top beard.

So today you get two things instead of a ghost-ish movie review...first, a link I neglected to put up a few days ago. My latest column, Mommy Knows Best, is up at Pretty/Scary and I totally forgot to mention it, so there you go.

Secondly, I have no reason to post this film still, except that I love it oh so very much.

As I said at the time, it's simply the best reaction to anything in the history of ever. If you're wondering what "at the time" I'm referring to, it's from my review of Home for the Holidays.

Hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to think about something besides X-Men Legends II...but I promise nothing!

May 16, 2006

Ghost Week Day 7: Nightmare Castle

Horror icon Barbara Steele stars in Nightmare Castle, a gothic tale of revenge from beyond the grave. The 1965 film (also known as Lovers From Beyond the Tomb, Night of the Doomed, The Faceless Monster, and...uh...Orgasmo), directed by Mario Caiano (credited as Allan Grunewald) oozes sexuality and blood in about equal doses.

Barbara Steele plays Muriel Arrowsmith, a wealthy vixen who can't wait for her mad scientist husband Stephen (Paul Muller) to leave so she can get it on with David (Rik Battaglia), her lover and gardener. What the pair don't know is that Stephen has a spy in the house: the old, decrepit maid Solange (Helga Line), whose face looks not so much wrinkled as it looks like it's covered in dried Elmer's Glue. No sooner are Muriel and David gettin' down to some hanky panky in the greenhouse then Stephen returns to catch them in flagrante. He chains them up in his laboratory and sadisically tortures them, promising that the release of death won't come for a long time: "You don't know how long it takes to die from pain!". Muriel, unafraid, hisses in return, "You can kill my body, but I'll never leave you in peace! Never! NEVER!"

Finally, Stephen sets about electrocuting the lovers...but before they die, Muriel has the last laugh. She assures Stephen that he won't see a penny of her riches- she's left her cast wealth and the castle to her 'barely sane' stepsister Jenny. In your face, crazy husband!

After he's killed them, Stephen gets his mad scientist on- he cuts up their bodies, preserving their hearts in a tank full of liquid. He cremates the remains and uses the ashes as a home-made Miracle Gro on his houseplants. He also gives his faithful helper Solange a transfusion with Muriel's blood. Somehow this restores Solange's youthful appearance, and she and Stephen are at long last able to be lovers. Eww.

Because he's a greedy bastard, Stephen ends up marrying Muriel's stepsister Jenny (also played by Barbara Steele- this time in a blonde wig!) with the hopes that he can push her over the edge into raging insanity. He can then have her locked up, take control of all her money, and live happily with Solange.

After he brings her home, Jenny immediately begins having freaky experiences. She hears heartbeats, laughter, and sees blood dripping from the weird houseplants. She has trippy, creepy nightmares about the murder in which she assumes the role of Muriel. Is she going crazy?


Because he needs a doctor to stamp "INSANE" on her hand before he can ship her off, Stephen calls in Jenny's psychiatrist, Dr. Joyce (Laurence Clift) to make a diagnosis. This is where Nightmare Castle loses some steam. The spooky dreams are no longer shown, but rather just talked about. Solange and Stephen have alot of arguments and spend their time plotting their next steps. Stephen tries to kill Dr. Joyce with an electrified bathtub, but only succeeds in accidentally killing the poor butler.

Things pick up again for a fast and furious finale, however. Solange's original transfusion is starting to wear off and it's making her sick...she says her blood is cold and heavy and painful, like mercury. Stephen hooks both her and Jenny up to the Tranfuse-O-Meter (unfortunately, that's just my name for it), killing two birds with one stone: keeping Solange young and getting rid of Jenny at the same time.

Meanwhile, Dr. Joyce finds the tank containing the hearts of David and Muriel. As he sets the tank on a table the lovers return, all grossified and ready for action in a sequence that reminded me of the "Something to Tide You Over" sequence from Creepshow.

Muriel, now half-lovely and half-grody, seeks her vengeance on Stephen. She states her intention to treat him to what she calls the "torment to ecstacy", which apparently just means she's gonna set him on fire. Bye bye, mad scientist!

It's up to David to finish off Solange, which he does quite easily: he unhooks her from the Tranfuse-O-Meter, which...somehow...speeds up the aging process, turning her in to a skeleton right there on the table!

Dr. Joyce rushes into the lab, grabs Jenny, and chucks the disembodied hearts into the burning fireplace. The ghosts of David and Muriel disappear, and all is well in Nightmare Castle.

The first and last 15 minutes of this flick were great- there was some startling imagery, some creepy sequences, some interesting notions about the nature of life and death, and enough gore to be intriguing without being explicit or gross. The film really suffers in the middle hour or so when the pace slows to a crawl. It's unfortunate, because it keeps Nightmare Castle from being the great old gothic horror movie it could have been. What we have here, folks, is a Tiiffany. I give it 5 out of 10 hearts afire.

May 15, 2006

Ghost Week Day 6: The Nun

My already high hopes for The Nun (La Monja in its original Spanish) went through the roof when the jaded video store clerk checked out the box and said "This movie looks awesome!" Yes, jaded video store clerk, that's what I thought, too- oh, but how wrong we were.

18 years ago, the cruel, vaguely attractive Sister Ursula is using a shower head and scalding water to "purify" a pregnant student at her Barcelona boarding school. Hearing her screams, the girl's friends rush in and wrestle with Sister Ursula. She falls and bangs her head. As she lies there, the girls start to freak out...then it becomes obvious that she's not dead- so they hold her under the water and finish the job. They dump her body in the "blessed pool" on the school grounds and make the usual pact that will come back to bite them in the ass: let's promise never to tell what we've done! Total pinky swear. God, that device has been used so many frickin' times in horror movies...

Anyway, soon enough the guilty parties are being killed one by one by the nun's spirit, who can only manifest herself near water. The "product of sin" from 18 years ago, Eve, is all grown up now, and after witnessing the death of her mother at Sister Ursula's wispy, watery hands, she's determined to kick some nun ass.

For about 15 minutes, The Nun was all ten kinds of wicked sweet. The sound design was killer and used to great effect in the sequence above where Eve's mom gets it. The scene was actually tense, a little gory, nicely shot, well acted, and the nun was in the scene just long enough for you to get a little freaked out- she didn't overstay her welcome. I was really quite surprised by the first 15 minute of the movie, and very much looking forward to the next hour and a half or so.

Then, before I knew it, it all went horribly, horribly wrong. I'm not sure if I can pinpoint the exact moment when the train went off the tracks, but oh my my my did it. One big, fat, huge mistake was the portrayal of the ethereal nun after the initial encounter with her. Instead of just sweeping by quickly or having her remaining in the shadows, the filmmakers lingered on her for so long that there were long periods of time where she'd be in front of or behind someone, doing little more than mugging. I mean, this was like, silent movie, Bela Lugosi-esque "scary faces". I wouldn't have been surprised if she had actually began uttering "Booga booga!" or something to that effect. It got to the point where all you could do was cry "What is she doing? Why is she doing that?" I mean, imagine her waving back and forth for a while here, and add your own "Rarr!" sound effect for maximum enjoyment:

BOOGA BOOGA! Groan.

The end result was a movie that had many laugh-out-loud moments leading up to one of the most ludicrous, nonsensical "twist" endings in the history of ever. Even M Night Shyamalan wouldn't crap out an ending this bad during a bout of malaria-induced fever dreams. The problem is, it wasn't consistently bad enough to qualify as a good/bad classic- unfortunately, The Nun isn't worth seeking out for a night of scares OR a night or raucous bad-movie entertainment, and I was desperatly hoping, even before I brought it home, that it would qualify as one or the other. Instead, it falls squarely in that middle ground, that No Man's Land where a movie just...exists, neither acid nor base on the litmus paper. If it's on cable late at night, maybe check it out for some laughs. Otherwise...it's best if I just finish this thing off with a few choice comments and snippets of conversation from either Rachael or myself during viewing- some requiring context, others not.

"She looks like she's had plastic surgery."
"Yeah- her cheeks."
"And that nose- she probably thought it was going to be a good nose but then she just ended up with really big nipples."
"Nip-?"
"Nostrils."

(As two people, in horror-movie fashion, start to get it on in the middle of all the madness): "Hey! Now is really not the time!"
"Oh, come on- ghost hunting and nun killing always make people horny."

"I'd rather watch a million people be killed than watch ONE person clip their toenails--and struggle with it!" (Yes, probably the most disturbing sequence in the film)

"How did she shoot herself in the chest with a spear gun?"
"Never mind how---why??"

And lastly...the sequence during which I would have peed a little due to laughter had I not been so in shock. Eve and friends are on a plane, en route to Barcelona to solve the mystery. Everyone's asleep except Eve, who starts looking around the plane. She slowly turns to look out the window, and Rachael says "Watch, the nun will be on the wing of the plane!". I laughed and started imitating the nun's little wispy watery booga booga action, throwing in a little Twilight Zone Nightmare at 20,000 Feet for good measure. Then the camera swings over Eve's shoulder, looking out the plane window, and I kid you fucking not:

I could NOT believe what I was seeing. The nun. On the fucking wing of the plane, hitching a ride.

The Nun took itself way too seriously and had long stretches of dull space. If there had been more SuperCheese like the nun on the wing of the plane (God, I still can't believe that one), I'd watch it again, right now. As it stands, it just kinda stinks- and the ending...girl, don't even get me started. I give it 4 out of 10 scalding water abortions.

May 13, 2006

Ghost Week Day Off

Yeah, you heard me. Day off. See, because I like my reviews to be fresh like a Summer's Eve, I watch the movies I review on the day of the review, even if I've seen the movie a zillion times. Thing is, though, today I just didn't feel like watching a horror movie. I know...I know. I'm a disappoint meant to you, but even more importantly, I'm a disappointment to French-Canadian singing sensation Celine Dion...so much so, I cause her physical pain with my lameness.

I'm so sorry. Today, you see, I was in a total 1983 comedy classic The Man With Two Brains starring Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner, and the voice of Sissy Spacek kind of mood. Forgive me.

The good news is, I'm having such fun with Ghost Week that I'm going to extend it into something longer...Ghost Fortnight, perhaps.

I'll be back tomorrow with the horror, and that makes us all happy, yeah? Even you...right, French-Canadian singing sensation Celine Dion?

May 12, 2006

Ghost Week Day 5: The Changeling

When I started making a list of movies to review for Ghost Week, The Changeling sprang to mind almost immediately. As one of the few haunted house flicks that I find most unnervingly scary, there was no way to have this "event" and not talk about it. Most people who've seen it seem to be in agreement about it's effectiveness. In fact, I thought to myself one sunny afternoon, "Hey, doesn't that girl I know like The Changeling a whole bunch? Boy, if I could get her to write about it, then I'd have lots more time to devote to my crack habit helping the elderly!"

Well, she agreed to write up a little something for us, and so without further ado, I present the very first guest column here at Final Girl, written by some girl who calls herself Filthy Assistant. She's wanted by the authorities for something called "human" "trafficking", whatever that means, so she needs to use an alias. It's awfully kind of her to take a time-out from running from the po-po to write this, don't you think?

------------------------------------------------------------------

What's the most unsettling image you can think of? A crazy Japanese woman creeping across the floor to come get you? The demon face in The Exorcist? Your mother-in-law, legs akimbo, with a jar of crunchy peanut butter and the family Alsatian?

If you answered any of these, you've never seen The Changeling.

Those of us who have damn near burst open either a cushion or a loved one whilst watching Peter Medak's 1980 classic ghost story know there aren't many things more frightening than a child's red rubber ball THUD THUD THUDing down a flight of stairs.

George C. Scott plays John Russell, a distinguished composer who moves to Seattle and rents an old house from the Historical Preservation Society following the death of his wife and child. And yes, you guessed it, there is something in the house. In the words of the delightful Minnie, the Society's 'Employee Most Resembling A Bulldog 1979,' "That house is not fit to live in. No-one has been able to live in it. It doesn't want people."

But John Russell is not "no-one." Vulnerable from his recent personal tragedy and convinced that whatever haunts the house is desperately trying to communicate with him, John enlists the help of friend and Historical Preservation Society employee Claire Norman, played by George C's then wife, Trish Van Devere. Together they investigate the house's history in an attempt to uncover its secrets, and the film turns part horror, part murder mystery as our protagonist's quest for the truth (and the ghostly occurrences that haunt him) become more frantic. After some amateur detective work indicates Cora Bernard, a young girl living in the house in the early 1900s, was killed in a similar manner to John's own daughter, he arranges for a psychic to visit the house and the mystery begins to unfold.

The séance scene provides a perfect example of one of the spine-chilling shots that pepper the film. With all the guests seated at a table in dark, we see the attic door creak open of its own volition, followed by the camera sweeping at child height through the house and down the stairs towards the gathering. As the camera approaches the table, the psychic announces "The presence…is with us" and you will pee yourself slightly, I guarantee it. By the time John, alone in the house and trying to come to terms with what he's seen, plays back the audio recording he made of the séance, you will be wide-eyed and whimpering.

And not because of Alsatians, peanut butter or mother-in-laws.

So, an old house, a séance, a dead child - this may all sound like standard horror fare and you'll notice that many of the motifs have been cherry-picked by more recent films (The Ring springs to mind – obscure pun intentional) but the pacing and attention to detail is impeccable. It's testament to the completely absorbing atmosphere that even after ten viewings I still won't watch this film without a friend, relative or innocent passerby entering into a legally binding contract that they won't leave me alone in the house that night.

The Changeling is simply a classic, chilling ghost story. Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas provide strong turns but what makes this film for me is not the supporting cast or the skilfully sustained suspense; it's not the haunting soundtrack and it's not the sweeping camera shots that move eerily through the old house from a ghostly perspective. It's good old George C.

No matter how understated his performance, this is still a big bear of a man. He's been around. He's seen some things. He has, one suspects, no time for hokum, frippery, piffle or any of the other excellent words that I never get a chance to use.

So when George C. Scott backs away from something with a look of sheer terror on his face, as he does frequently in this film, then you know there is good reason to be very, very afraid.

May 11, 2006

Ghost Week Day 4: Ju-on

Ju-on: The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the place where that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.

There you go. Simple premise, yeah? Like most Asian horror films, Ju-on is short on plot and long on scares. The preceeding paragraph, as written text, opens the picture and gives you everything you need to know. From there, all you can do is sit tight and wait to be horrified.

This isn't to say there's no real plot to the film; it is, however, painfully simple. A man suspects that his wife is cheating on him and his son may be the product of an affair. The man kills his wife and, presumably, the child as well. The house they live in becomes haunted by the spirits of the dead. If they see you, you die. There's no escape, there's nothing you can do about it...you die.

The story is told in vignettes that unwind across time. One of the pleasures of Ju-on is figuring out who relates to whom, where the various scenes fit in the timeline of the big picture, and then piecing together what exactly happened. It's not difficult, really, and the jumping back and forth from place to place and time to time doesn't feel so much like a conceit as it does in, say, Memento.

Were this an American film (and let me qualify that by saying I haven't seen the American remake of Ju-on, The Grudge, starring television's Sarah Michelle Gellar as a journalist or something. I have no idea how that version stacks up or how much of an improvement or bastardization of the original it is, and having seen said original I don't really feel the need to watch it at all. The Ring, on the other hand, well, I saw the American version first and I--wait, where was I? Oh yeah...), an original American film, the plot would most likely spiral out of control with subplots and "reasons" and "explanations" for everything that happens. The Japanese like to keep things simple in their movies, and thus we don't get bogged down in details. It's more like:

Ghosts. Scary image. Die.

And dammit, I like it like that sometimes. These flicks just get to the goods. They're little more than a series of frightening images and sound thrown at you...and I must say, some from Ju-on reduce me to a babbling mess, clutching a pillow to my chest, waiting for it to be over. This movie's got the scary, baby, and sometimes it's the simplest things: the sound of someone shuffling behind you as you walk down a hallway (of course there's no one behind you...); walking into a room with a closet door that's taped shut...then hearing scratching from behind that door; or how about a ghost getting you when you're hiding under your fucking bedsheets? I thought that was a safety zone! No fair!

But that "no fair" is what makes it so good. The conventions of the standard ghost story are turned on their head in Ju-on (and The Ring as well). There's no appeasing a spirit done wrong, a la The Changeling. There's no guiding anyone into the pretty light a la Poltergeist. One character in Ju-on pleads with the spirit "I did what you asked! Stop tormenting me!"...but guess what, folks? This house cannot be cleaned. They will not stop, ever. They're malevolent. They're a curse. And they will kill you.

Most of the ideas behind the Asian horror films come from terrifying folktales that have been passed down through generations. Maybe it's because of this that the movies don't spend alot of time with characters who don't (or won't) believe what's happening before them...there's few, if any, unbelievers or naysayers around. In Ju-on, everyone in the film immediately knows that the house is haunted. The pale woman staring at you from the foot of your bed is simply a fucking ghost. No fuss, no muss, no questions asked, easy, breezy, beautiful. While this approach helps move the plot along more quickly, I think it also helps suck the audience into the action- there's no one on screen constantly playing the cynic card, reminding us that this is all fake. If everyone in the movie simply accepts that this is all real right off the bat, well...couldn't something like this be real?

I can tell you, honestly, that The Ring and Ju-on are the only movies in recent memory that have left me scared long after the credits rolled. Having grown up on ghost movies like Poltergeist, I never figured ghosts to be just plain evil. There was always something to be done to get them off your back, and any "guilty parties" were the only ones who actually paid any price. But these new movies taught me that everything I know is a lie! A LIE! Ghosts hate me- even if I did nothing wrong!- and they will kill me. That's not cool at all. It is, however, quite terrifying.

All this praise for Ju-on doesn't mean I think every Asian horror offering is pure gold. Firstly, I'm not terribly well-versed in the subgenre. Secondly, it seems that the Asian horror scene bites its own tail as much as say, the slasher flicks do. There's some that rock, some that are derivative, and alot that are simply watered-down versions of the classics. Before you say "Meh, seen one long dark-haired girl, seen 'em all!", though, check out Ju-on. It'll get under your skin. I give it 9 out of 10 hold me, mommy!s.

May 10, 2006

Ghost Week Day 3: The Haunting of Hell House

Boy, I tell ya, keeping the titles of these movies straight is hard work. Today I watched the 1999 movie The Haunting of Hell House, based on the Henry James short story The Ghostly Rental. Now don't you go getting this flick confused with The Legend of Hell House, The Haunting, The Haunting of Hill House (the book upon which that last movie was based), The House on Haunted Hill, the documentary Hell House, or even Elvira's Haunted Hills. Sweet baby Charles Nelson Reilly, is it really so difficult to come up with a somewhat original title for a haunted house movie?!

I used to love watching Elvira and totally miss her show....just thought you should know.

A long, long time ago (around the turn of the 20th century) in a land far, far away ("New" England), a boy named James and a girl named Sarah traveled by horse-drawn carriage to a creepy abandoned house to participate in the time-honored horror movie tradition known as Doin' It. After the bodices have been ripped and the sighs sighed, Sarah tells James she's so in love with him and wouldn't it be just lovely if they bought this creepy old house and lived in bliss together, ripping bodices and heaving their chests for all eternity? James replies, in essence, "Yeah, sure baby, that sounds swell. Thing is, see, I'm a college student who's in line to become manager of the family flax mill. You're a lowly wench. It'll never work, baby- never." Sarah then utters the line that's best uttered at the least opportune time: "I'm pregnant". Maybe I shouldn't quote that; it is basically what she says, but she says it all Henry James ye olde timey fancy-like.

Faster than you can say "Ye olde timey expletive!", James rushes Sarah to a back-alley abortionist. She's oddly terrified of the whole thing...maybe it's because the surly dude who's going to perform the "procedure" says to her "You can call me doctor if it makes you feel better." Who knows...women are so emotional.

Surprisingly, the operation is NOT a raging success and Sarah leaves the clinic bleeding all over the place. James kindly dumps her upstairs in a tavern, tells her he's going to fetch help...and splits. When he returns the next day bearing flowers- how sweet!- he finds out that Sarah died at some time during the night.

Almost immediately James is beset by horrible visions and dreams of a bloody Sarah, bloody tables, bloody tools, and bloody blood. Lots of blood. It's like Ye Olde Shining!

The creepy abandoned house is owned by a strange man who teaches "metaphysics" classes late at night at James's school. Professor Ambrose (Michael York, sporting some crazy-ass Scrooge-meets-Einstein sideburns) tells his students that death is just another level of existence, man, a different form of being, dig? James, increasingly disturbed by his violent visions, seeks out Professor Ambrose to get some advice. It turns out that the two of them have quite alot in common as Ambrose reveals his own haunted past. His beloved wife died in childbirth and so he was left to raise their daughter Lucy on his own. One night Ambrose came home from giving a lecture to find Lucy making out with the man she intended to marry. Ambrose flew into a rage and cursed the both of them, telling Lucy "You're dead to me!". Months later, he chilled out and decided to reconcile with his only daughter...but he found out that she died in the interim. She simply lost the will to live.

Ambrose eventually tried to rent out the creepy house, but the spirit of his daughter wouldn't allow it- she kept scaring them off. In a gesture of good- or is it eeeevil?- will, the spirit makes a deal with Ambrose. She'll be his ghostly tenant! Once a week, he must swing by the house, pick up a bag full of coins for rent, and drink a glass of wine. The poor dude has been doing this for a long time now, and the house (or the spirit!) is killing him slowly.

Meanwhile, the police are actually investigating Sarah's death (despite the fact that she was but a lowly wench) and they're closing in fast on James. He decides to meet Sarah at the creepy house to put an end to all of this- it's what she wants, after all. Despite the pleas from Ambrose to just forget the past, James goes to meet his destiny- and he encounters a big fat twist ending that I didn't see coming but ultimately made sense. I'm not going to ruin it for you, but I will say that for some reason the house ends up exploding, which made absolutely no sense.

The Haunting of Hell House wasn't a bad little movie, really. I read some scathing reviews online, which I pretty much disagree with. The acting is above average, the settings are well-done and atmospheric, and the story kept me intrigued and guessing to the end. It's not particularly scary, but there are some creepy images and a surprising amount of blood. The story is really about how guilt can haunt your soul far more than any ghostly apparitions can- it'll leave you all tore up inside, man, so be good! All in all, this was a nice change of pace from your ordinary haunted house flick, and I'll give it 6 out of 10 Olde Timey Crazy Ass Flyaway Sideburns.

Yeah, I'm bringing back the ratings system...I don't know why I stopped with it in the first place.

May 9, 2006

Ghost Week Day 2: The Invisible Ghost

"Apple pie? My, that vill be a treat."

The 1941 Bela Lugosi flick The Invisible Ghost had a ton of hype to live up to before today's viewing. I'm talking about all the hype created solely in my head when I read the following on the back of the DVD box:

Bela Lugosi is an otherwise normal man who goes insane when he thinks about his late wife.

I mean, to me, that sounds like an awesome movie- so awesome, in fact, that I was fully prepared to be let down by the actual product. Nothing ever lives up to the hype...ever...except...The Invisible Ghost.

We meet Mr Kessler (Bela Lugosi) as he's sitting down to a little dinner with the Mrs. He asks about her day, he promises that they'll go on a long walk after they've eaten, it's all so sweet and lovely...except for the fact that Mr Kessler is alone at the table. He's talking to an empty chair! Wha-a-a-a-a? Soon his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) comes home from a date with her boyfriend Ralph (John McGuire). Ralph spots Virginia's dad talking to thin air and assumes, as we the audience do, that Mr Kessler is plain old cuckoo nutso. Virginia explains it all to Ralph: he's only sorta crazy. You see, her mother was cheating on her father- with his best friend! They ran off together several years ago, breaking daddy's heart. Dad is convinced that someday mom will return home, and he spends every wedding anniversary like this, "talking" to mom. Ralph says sure, baby, that's cool.

Cecile the maid, however, is not easily convinced that all is well and quips to Evans, the butler: "I think this is a crazy house! And what about all those murders?"

Excuse me? "All those murders"? Yes, apparently a large number of people have been murdered IN the Kessler house and the police are stymied. Funny thing, that.

Later that evening, the gardener steals some food and brings it to a secret basement underneath his gardening shed. Don't think him a simple thief, though...he's bringing the food...to...Mrs...Kessler! That's right, she's alive and holed up in the secret basement of the gardening shed. She's pretty dazed, quite nappy haired, and has no idea where she is, but she's alive nonetheless. The gardener gives her her dinner, promising that as soon as she's well, he'll take her home to her husband and daughter. We learn from Mrs Kessler's quiet ramblings that she was in a car accident soon after she and her boyfriend left for a new life together; apparently the boyfriend died, but Mrs Kessler lived...the gardener found her on the side of the road and brought her back to his shed!

Folks, if you're anything like me, at this point you're thinking "Why didn't you take her to a doctor, or at least let her family know she's alive and in your fucking shed, o gardener?" Because The Invisible Ghost is an awesome movie, the gardener's wife asks him that very question, to which he replies: "It would break his heart to see her like this. Besides, maybe she has something to do with those murders." Hmm. Makes sense.

And now we get to the goods...the meat in this nonsensical stew, if you will. Mrs Kessler gets a little late-night wanderlust and makes her way out of the shed. She shuffles through the yard and plants herself outside of Mr Kessler's window. He's reading a book by the fire, yet he's drawn to the window for some reason...he looks down at his wife looking back up at him...they stare at each other for a while, and then...Mr Kessler goes INSANE! How can you tell? It's easy! The camera, in a close-up on his face, goes all blurry. When it re-focuses, there's dramatic lighting! He also holds his hand in an insane fashion, like so:

That's right, we don't need no James Brolin in The Amityville Horror-style histrionics here...the madness is conveyed in the lighting, the hand, and Bela Lugosi's furrowed brow. So what's Mr Kessler's first order of business as a crazy dude? Why, verrrrry slowly sneaking into the mouthy maid's room and then killing her, that's what...and so we have what I believe is the very first death by bathrobe on the silver screen.

Eyyaaaagggh! The body is discovered the next morning. Because there's a tiny amount of circumstantial evidence incriminating him, Virginia's boyfriend Ralph is PUT TO DEATH for the murder. These unfortunate circumstances allow the introduction of Ralph's twin brother Paul, who intends to stay with the Kesslers and solve the murders on his own.

There's soon another body to add to the list as Mr and Mrs Kessler once again lock eyes through the window late at night...we fade to crazy face! and Mr Kessler wanders off in search of a victim. This time, the gardener gets the ol' bathrobe treatment, as witnessed in a fantastic silhouetted sequence.

The "Is that my wife? I'm going crazy- I must kill!" routine is played out a few more times, and eventually the murders build to...a painting of Mrs Kessler being slashed! Who would do such a horrible thing? As Paul says, it's "unquestionably the work of a MADMAN!"- never mind the umpteen murders that have taken place in that very house...it's the wanton destruction of a painting that really gets everyone's goat!

A thread from Mr Kessler's bathrobe is found embedded in the torn painting- ha ha! The jig is up, Mr K! No, wait- somehow his bathrobe ended up in the butler's room! No one knows how it got there, but it doesn't matter...in fact, in this town they've sent people to the electric chair for far, far less. Because the painting incident was such a heinous act, clearly perpetrated by a raving lunatic, Paul demands that a "sanity test" be given to the butler in the hope of proving his guilt or innocence. The police agree and a doctor is called in:

COP: All we wanna know is if this fella's crazy.

DOCTOR: Well, that's very easy to determine.

"Very easy", eh? How so? Well, in a time-tested method, the doctor begins to ask questions like "Do you think I'm insane?" to the poor, confused butler.

Meanwhile, with the gardener dead, Mrs Kessler is damn hungry. She shuffles into the kitchen and starts chowing down. She's soon discovered by the police, who bring her before Mr Kessler...who fades to crazy right there in front of everyone! He begins choking a cop...Mrs Kessler inexplicably drops dead, and the spell is broken. Mr Kessler is once again sane...but guilty of a slew of murders he had no idea he'd committed. Isn't it ironic? Don't you think? Mr Kessler thinks so. "Who, me?"

I can't tell you how awesome this movie was. From the frank explanations of the non-sensical plot points to the creeping Lugosi, The Invisible Ghost rocked! Surprisingly, director Joseph H. Lewis utilized some very creative camera angles and lighting to make this a step above your ordinary schlock picture. Also surprising was the treatment of Evans, the African-American butler. For a picture made in the early 1940s, the character was treated seriously and with respect by the filmmaker as well as the other characters in the film; he wasn't a "pappy" stereotype, there simply for comic relief.

All the fat has been trimmed from The Invisible Ghost, and it clocks in at a quick 65 minutes. That's just fine by me, since it's all insane cuckoo crazy nutso action, baby!