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The Unseen (1980)
Rather dull proceedings sprinkled with memorable moments, 1 July 2015

"The Unseen" has Barbara Bach as one of three female Los Angeles news reporters who are in Northern California to cover a local festival. They end up boarding at an old farmhouse after finding all the hotels in town to be booked, and each individually come face-to-face with a sinister presence lurking in the basement of the home.

Given the credentials of its makers, one would think that "The Unseen" would excel as a genre picture— an early directing credit of cult filmmaker Danny Steinmann, director of "Savage Streets" and "Friday the 13th: A New Beginning," it was also co-written by Kim "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" Henkel, and even featured crew members fresh off of John Carpenter's "Halloween." What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, sort of.

"The Unseen" is a visually appealing film; the cinematography is slick and there is a fair amount of atmosphere here (never mind the overuse of slow-motion shots at peak suspense sequences); it does have a fair share of problems though. Not only is is it staggeringly predictable, but it's also incredibly dull for the first hour. Mind, this is not a body count film by any means, but what it lacks in visual carnage, it fails to make up for in adequate suspense.

There are two key scenes that occur in the film's first hour that kept me drawn in, and they are admittedly well-executed. That's really all to be had here though. Family hysterics abound as the loopy couple who own the farmhouse exhibit their own neuroses, and the familial drama reaches its peak point in the film's goofy climax where the "unseen"'s true identity is revealed (not to much surprise). The film is in many ways similar to Denny Harris' "The Silent Scream," which was made the same year— they share very similar tonal elements, and also complement each other in terms of architectural dwellings of the villains; "The Unseen" lurks in the basement, while the villain in "The Silent Scream" resides in a secret attic. They actually would make a fantastic double feature, though "Silent Scream" is a bit more engaging of a film.

The performances here are actually decent, though Barbara Bach is lacking in the emotive department; she does make up for this though with a great performance during the finale sequences, letting some impressive screams loose. Stephen Furst deserves attention for a disturbing turn as the "unseen," and Sydney Lassick and Lelia Goldoni are madcap mad and wildly hysterical, respectively.

Overall, "The Unseen" is a decent offering from the genre, but doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a suspense film or a slasher film. Its victim list is far too short to qualify it as a slasher picture, but it lacks the cohesive tension of a suspense film. What we end up with is a dull and ultimately predictable horror flick that is just enough to be slightly memorable, but not enough to truly stand out. There are some well-played sequences and a decent climax, but the majority of the picture is too plodding to truly engage with. 5/10.

Ghosthouse (1988)
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Amusing, campy, serious, and creepy all at once, 12 June 2015

A programming engineer in Boston picks up what sounds like a murder on his CB radio. He and his girlfriend trace the disturbing recording to an abandoned house where they find a group of young people camped out at; unbeknownst to them, a young girl and her clown doll haunt the home, killing anyone who dares enter.

Released in Italy as "La casa 3" and marketed as an unlicensed sequel to the "Evil Dead" franchise (which makes zero sense), "Ghosthouse" is an under-appreciated gem among the supernatural schlocky horror of the late eighties. Directed and co-written by Umberto Lenzi under the pseudonym "Humphrey Humbert," the film was shot in the same location as Lucio Fulci's "The House by the Cemetery," and has a similar feel with Lenzi's own spins. Yes, it's campy at times, but it also manages to be compelling and boast a genuinely spooky atmosphere.

The cinematography is very professional and the movie is surprisingly well shot; the editing leaves a bit to be desired and results in some clunky transitions and parallel editing, but given the type of film this is, it's completely forgivable. The house and surrounding forest create a lush and unsettling atmosphere, which is exacerbated by bizarre encounters with the silent spot-lit ghost girl and her bizarre clown doll inside the house. There are some inventive and shocking murder scenes that are well-handled and convincing.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the film, as many have said, is the bizarre nursery tune that plays during the characters' encounters with the supernatural. It's difficult to describe and has to be heard to be understood, but it adds a sufficiently creepy flair to what could have been otherwise flat or hokey scare scenes. The acting is a mishmash of decent performances and wooden ones, but overall the characters are likable and the actors good enough. I'd say if the film has a singular weakness, it'd be some of the poorly-delivered lines; aside from that, this is actually a fairly class-act haunted house movie.

Overall, "Ghosthouse" is an incredibly entertaining haunted house flick— nothing more, nothing less. If the idea of killer clown dolls, a big creepy house, and a possessed little girl in a white dress sound like a good time, then this is the prime late eighties flick for it. It's well shot and incredibly atmospheric, and features some creative and fun scare scenes— the "House by the Cemetery" location link just provides another amusing bonus for genre fans. 8/10.

Society (1989)
Twisted and visionary satire, 11 June 2015

Brian Yuzna's film debut has Billy Warlock as Bill Whitney, the youngest son of a wealthy Beverly Hills family who has felt a sense of displacement his entire life. His parents pay him little attention, doting on his débutante sister and lounging in their sprawling California mansion. After a classmate brings to Bill's attention the macabre nature of his family dynamics, it becomes clear that the high society whose fringes he lives on is much more disturbing than anyone could imagine.

"Society" is an oft-discussed film in the horror genre that has been opened to a contemporary audience with its recent release on Blu-ray (a scant DVD was released over a decade ago). While it can't be said for many older films that are revived in contemporary technology, I do think "Society" is a standout for fans of bizarre cinema and is worthy of modern audiences' attention, if for no other reason than its biting social commentary.

Narratively, the film is a candid and no-nonsense satire on the underworld of high society, and these themes are played with in funny, creepy, and grotesque ways throughout. The film begins in the haze of late eighties L.A. and is peppered with brief, bizarre sequences, before propelling into the territory of paranoid thrillers and outright monster flicks, ending in one of the most infamous and repulsive "sex" scenes ever filmed. Jaw-dropping special effects come into full bloom in the finale, which are simultaneously silly and utterly gag-worthy. A solid performance from the dashing Billy Warlock (donning some "Full House"-era John Stamos hair) helps hold the film together, and the support from Devin DeVasquez as the sympathetic rich girl and Evan Richards as the wingman is great.

Overall, "Society" is everything it claims to be, and Yuzna draws on extremes to illustrate the sickly indulgence of high society as (literally) an amalgamative blob of vice, incest, and hedonism. It's funny, it's grotesque, and, more importantly, it's one of the most inventive and memorable horror flicks of the late eighties. 9/10.

Tense and disturbing moral play, 4 June 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Adapted from the off-Brodway play, "Extremities" has Farrah Fawcett resuming her stage role as a woman targeted by a serial rapist and murderer who breaks into her home with the intent to kill her after a botched rape attempt. After dismantling him and blockading him inside her fireplace, she and her two female roommates struggle with what to do next.

This is an all around minimalist thriller that is taut and effective in spite of locale limitations. The film is structured much like the stage play, with the majority of the action taking place in the confines of a living room. Thus, the film is very much dialogue-driven, dependent on strong performances which the cast deliver. Farrah Fawcett is one of the most underrated actresses ever as far as I'm concerned, and her performance in this film is proof of it; she was much more than a pretty face on "Charlie's Angels" and plastered on the walls of teenage baby boomer boys' bedrooms.

James Russo— who also starred in the stage production with Fawcett— plays the villain with tenacity and menace that is overtaken in the second act as the film swirls with moral debate between the two other women; Alfre Woodard and Diana Scarwid provide solid and necessary support here. The real electric chemistry at the crux of the film is between Fawcett and Russo, and this is very likely due to their past experience playing out the narrative onstage together; regardless, both of these performances are honest and believable.

Though not exactly a "suspense" film, there is a high level of tensity maintained throughout; nearly every scene is rife with it. The opening sequence featuring a point-of- view shot from Russo as he stalks potential victims in the night before locking in on Fawcett is especially sinister and almost reminiscent of a slasher film. The denouement follows a jaw-dropping one-to-one between the two leads with a hunting knife and family jewels.

Overall, "Extremities" is a minimalist but solid thriller that works as a thriller and as an acting decathlon for Fawcett and Russo (especially Fawcett). I'd say to see it just for the acting, but there is also a great handling of material here that shapes the source material into a formidable and disturbing adaptation. 8/10.

Shoestring thriller with high aspirations, 28 May 2015

"Don't Look in the Basement" (how's that for a gimmicky title?) has an attractive young nurse taking a job at a remote insane asylum that is known for its experimental approaches to psychiatric treatment (such as letting the patients simulate their own delusions, no matter how demented or dangerous). Upon her arrival, she is notified that the head doctor was murdered by one of the inmates, and is geared to run the asylum with the help of the head nurse, but finds herself receiving increasing hostility from the patients.

Also known as "The Forgotten," this deceptive and dreary grindhouse flick was apparently a staple of drive-in horror in the mid-1970s, and has been put through the shredder by audiences online. The truth is that this is actually not nearly as bad a film as many reviews would lead you to believe.

Make no bones about it, this is a low-budget production on all counts— it looks as though it were filmed inside a large farmhouse haphazardly made up to appear as a hospital, and the special effects are definitely minimalist, but there is something about the low-budget awkwardness that makes this film strangely effective. The narrative is admittedly slow-going early on and the film does feel a bit like a psych ward drama throughout the first forty minutes or so, but some well-played sequences and decent and sometimes disturbing performances from the inmate cast and the foxy, likable heroine elevate the proceedings from potentially dull to surprisingly engaging. Add to that a clever narrative twist that may or may not be easy to read between the lines, which may be the film's greatest asset.

Overall, "Don't Look in the Basement" is an effective and atmospheric low-budget horror offering that aspires to greater heights than its budget could clearly afford. In spite of this, the quirks resulting from the production's monetary shortcomings add a raw edge to the film, and it boasts a decent cast of unknowns playing up the hysterics of a '70s psychodrama. What the film does well, perhaps inadvertently, is weave a drab and unsettling atmosphere that infects the entire production, up to its uncompromisingly gruesome conclusion. 7/10.

Contrived Roger Corman-produced slasher is better than it should be, 25 May 2015

"Sorority House Massacre" follows Beth, a college coed who is spending Memorial Day Weekend at a sorority house with several sisters who want her to join. The house seems strangely familiar to Beth, and a series of dreams and bizarre visions link her to a madman who is dead set on nabbing her in the house.

In some ways a "Halloween" ripoff of the highest order, "Sorority House Massacre" takes the blueprint of Carpenter's classic and bases itself on the precise premise without an ounce of shame. Madman breaking out of a psych ward, shots of a group of girls walking through the tree-lined suburbs to class (except here the location is unabashedly California, and the girls college students). While some people have ripped this film for its shameless imitation, genre fans are more likely to appreciate the funky weirdness the film has to offer.

There are tinges of a psychic thriller set inside the slasher framework here that are handled surprisingly decently; lots of talk of ghosts, dreams and psychology, and brainwave connections make for some inventive plot fixings. The flashbacks and Beth's bizarre visions of the villain are edited and presented in a startling fashion, and somehow manage to be mildly creepy. The film is much less gory than the title would suggest, which is another reason the film falls in line with a psychic thriller perhaps more than a straightforward slasher. The performances are ho-hum at best, but for a low-budget late eighties horror flick, they are completely respectable.

Overall, "Sorority House Massacre" is a heck of a lot better than it should be. It is contrived and at times silly, but there are some genuinely startling on screen encounters with the villain, and the film is engaging in all of its hokey eighties corniness. The obnoxious late- eighties "Saved By the Bell" wardrobe and California atmosphere is also another amusing point of interest. 6/10.

Rebecca (1940)
The other woman, 22 May 2015

Joan Fontaine plays a self-conscious working class woman who falls in love with and marries a wealthy high society man (Laurence Olivier) and moves with him to his sprawling ancestral estate. She is met with bizarre reception from his friends, as well as his mysterious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and finds herself haunted by the ceaseless memory of his first wife who died in a bizarre accident outside the property.

Probably Alfred Hitchcock's most Gothic work, "Rebecca" is a phenomenal and faithful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's classic novel; the film itself has deservedly earned its place in the film canon, much as the source novel has in the literary realm. The plain truth is that "Rebecca" is an all-around masterwork. It's easy to forget that this is a Hitchcock film, which is maybe what makes it such an interesting piece of his filmography— while the film has Hitchcockian colorings, it is quite possibly the least "Hitchcockian" of all his films, leaning more as an ode to Gothicism than any of Hitch's signature quirks.

Predating the aesthetics of Jack Clayton's "The Innocents", Robert Wise's "The Haunting", and Lewis Allen's "The Uninvited", "Rebecca" is the paramount of spooky mansion films, which is interesting because it really isn't a spooky mansion film at all (yet another paradox). It is not at all a ghost film, though the presence of the eponymous Rebecca haunts every frame just as much as the memory of her torments the leading lady. Fontaine's character is reminded of, compared to, and prodded with the memory of Rebecca at every turn, and the film's shadowy photography of the expansive manor's interiors provide a landscape in which the omnipresent former wife can possibly lurk. Ominous and portentous warnings from the bizarre housekeeper only accentuate the feeling that Rebecca may be lurking in any corner, be it in human or spirit form.

As a partial result, the terror that is central to the film is very much psychological; if anything, I'd categorize the film as a psychological thriller, though the thrills are fairly light, especially by today's standards. Tour-de-force performances from Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier especially boost the overall impact, with Fontaine believably embodying a woman who finds herself in a new life that is haunted by her predecessor, and Olivier is quietly menacing yet charming and suave. Judith Anderson's legendary performance as the cryptic Mrs. Danvers is also key here, adding a necessary unnerving sensibility as she invokes Rebecca more forthrightly and disturbingly than any other character. Unlike so many films of the era, the performance here are truly timeless.

I would say that this is one of Hitchcock's greatest films, but the truth is that it's just a great film, period. It is dissimilar in tone from what the director is most celebrated for, and for that reason is easily separated from his stylistics, though very much an important hallmark in his career. "Rebecca" is an understated masterpiece of Gothic horror that looms over the genre just as ubiquitously as our titular invisible monster. 10/10.

Minimalist suspense thriller is both practical and creepy, 17 May 2015

Mentally fragile Peggy (Judy Geeson) is attacked by a one-armed man the night before she is to move with her new husband Robert (Ralph Bates) to the remote boys' boarding school where he now works. At the mysteriously empty school, Peggy meets the headmaster Michael (Peter Cushing) and is ill-received by his uncongenial wife (Joan Collins). It is not long before Peggy finds herself again pursued by her attacker, who seems to have followed her there.

Probably the most little-seen Hammer film of its era, "Fear in the Night" is, dare I say, quite underrated. Perhaps this is because it's one of the company's more obscure pictures and very few people have seen it, but regardless, this is a solid and surprisingly eerie film that has all the trappings and twists of a modernist suspense film, supplemented with an English Gothic-lite atmosphere and shades of giallo.

Director, producer, and co-writer (and Hammer head honcho) Jimmy Sangster handles the material here with an understated flair and does a fantastic job at establishing the film's ominous mood; atmosphere is what this film does best, and atmosphere, to me, is one of the most important components of any effective horror film. The photography of the autumnal boarding school campus and the chalet-style buildings weaves a languid and chilly disposition, and there are some truly nightmarish sequences with Geeson running through the empty halls of the school in the middle of the night.

The mentally-unstable woman motif is used to its full extent here, and while it's not exactly original, it is well done in this case. Unusual editing choices really put the viewer in the midst of Peggy's struggle and work to disorient our perception of what is happening around the old boarding school; in many ways, the film reminded of a more restrained version of Robert Altman's "Images," which was released the same year. Both films boast similar plots, jarring and manipulative editing choices, unnerving scores, and both feature a blonde, mentally fragile woman tormented in the ghostly English countryside.

Judy Geeson is fantastic as the doe-eyed and innocent Peggy, while Ralph Bates plays her new beau with an appropriate mysteriousness. Peter Cushing takes the cake here as the towering and bizarre headmaster, with Joan Collins effectively playing his icy and cunning wife— oddly enough, Collins and Cushing have no scenes together, but this works to form an almost necessary disconnect between the characters. The film's twist finale, as tense as it may be, is still somewhat predictable but so stylishly handled that I can't knock it a bit. There is phenomenal use of intercom omniscience at the end, and the final scene is sickly satisfying.

Overall, "Fear in the Night" is a stellar, understated thriller that boasts a great cast, solid plot twists, and truly unnerving sequences set against the backdrop of a rundown boarding school hidden away in the depths of English back country. The setting is phenomenal and Sangster makes full use of it, recalling "Diabolique" and later giallo thrillers which, in 1972, were in vogue. Some have said the film is too slow, but I found it rather infectious in its exposition; the further you are into it, the stranger things become. Definitely one of my favorite British horrors of this era. Recommended viewing in a similar vein is the Agatha Christie adaptation "Endless Night," also made the same year. 9/10.

Fun snapshot of late eighties-early nineties horror; amusing if not original, 16 May 2015

L.A. punk girl Megan (Rainbow Harvest) moves with her mother (Karen Black) to a small California suburb. Megan doesn't fit in at her new private school, but to make matters even worse, there is a massive antique mirror left behind in her new bedroom that boasts dangerous supernatural powers.

"Mirror Mirror" is an under-viewed gem from the early nineties that is corny and shocking in equal measure. The film is admittedly a bit dated, and the singular element that I found most alluring in it was the late eighties/early nineties atmospherics that are reminiscent of an "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" episode; make no bones about it though, "Mirror Mirror" is considerably more gratuitous than the former.

Director Marina Sargenti, who only has a small handful of credits to her name (all of them nineties television films and horror pictures) handles the material here very well. The film blends Gothic elements with an early '90s California sensibility, and the composition is surprisingly nice. The opening scene details a gruesome murder in the 1930s that takes place before the eponymous mirror, and occult elements pervade as its origins are uncovered.

Plot-wise, the film is nothing remotely original, and that may be its only significant downfall. Elements of "Carrie" and "The Boogeyman" abound, and the narrative progression is predictable to say the least. The upside is that the material is handled with much more sophistication than a film like this demands, and the horror creeps in, growing more and more violent as Megan's powers grow stronger and stronger. Great performances elevate the film above standard teen horror fodder as well; Rainbow Harvest (gotta love that name) plays the Gothic, "Beetlejuice"-era Winona Ryder character. We also have performances from veterans Karen Black as Megan's boozy Beverly Hills mother, and Yvonne De Carlo as the inquisitive estate handler; both Black and De Carlo's presences are welcome and they handle these supporting roles with considerable class.

Overall, "Mirror Mirror" is a well-made snapshot of late eighties-early nineties teen horror that is entertaining and thoughtfully made. While it lacks originality and could be heavier on stylistic flair, I appreciated the film as a time capsule for an in-between era of the horror genre as it transitioned from the celebrated eighties slasher to the onslaught of a nineties new wave.

Effective atmosphere and unflinching violence make up for an unevenly-paced finale in this mythological thriller, 15 May 2015

John Cassavetes stars as a surgeon in a small New England town where a series of bizarre rapes-turned-murders are occurring left and right against the area's female residents. Thrown into the mix is his teenager daughter whose boyfriend claims to be witnessing the crimes as they are occurring within nightmares he experiences.

As far as I'm concerned, John Hough is one of horror's unsung heroes when it comes to mood and atmosphere— if "The Legend of Hell House" or the marginal Disney thriller "The Watcher in the Woods" aren't enough proof of that, "The Incubus" is. This dreary thriller is considerably more violent than Hough's other horror pictures, but has his signature stylistics that I absolutely love.

Like in most of all Hough's work, the cinematography is slick and thoughtful, making goosebumps-inducing use of POV shots. In the film, the camera follows the victims almost like a predator before launching its vicious assault, and each attack is just as effective as the next. There is also a substantial Gothic feel underpinning the events, and the photography accentuates the beauty and classic chilliness of a New England environment, even in spite of the Canadian shooting locales. The musty and discomforting atmosphere of the film is underlined by an unnerving score, another signature element of Hough's films. A somewhat withered Cassavetes is still on his game here, with John Ireland supporting as the miffed sheriff and Kerri Keane as a nosy local reporter.

The classic autumnal environment in which the film takes place is entirely disrupted by the film's explicit sexual violence, and it features some of the most disturbing and visceral assault scenes I've ever seen in a horror film (the library sequence near the beginning especially stands out). The script's medley of violence and female sexuality under attack is fascinating in its repulsive representation, and even more bizarre are the incestuous undertones and gender-bending revelation at the film's twisted conclusion. While the finale is irrefutably shocking (and the monster makeup surprisingly scary, even by today's standards), I can say that the narrative build-up could have been a tad better handled as it all does seem to come crashing down rather awkwardly; a bit more finesse in script and editing could have remedied this, but the film still works in spite of it.

Overall, I found "The Incubus" to be a formidable and disturbing film; Hough's handling of the rural New England locale is fantastic in atmosphere and tone, and effective, moody cinematography really establishes a menacing and inauspicious feel. The film's one major flaw is the hackneyed pacing in its last act, but I personally found this a forgivable sin amidst the movie's audacious presentation of sexual violence and generally grim demeanor. This is definitely one of the more aggressive horror films of its era in terms of thematics, but the quaint and Gothic feel hearkens back to a more classical and almost British sensibility. A fantastic thriller best suited for viewing on a chilly autumn night with all the lights off. 8/10.

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