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Sleepaway Camp (1983)
A hidden gem
In the wake of the astronomical financial success of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' and Sean Cunningham's 'Friday the 13th', slasher films were all the rage. Cheap to produce, formulaic to write, and guaranteed to turn a profit. Inevitably this became very tiresome very fast as audiences became aware that once you've seen a couple of slasher films
there's basically no surprises in any other which you care to watch. And yet, 'Sleepaway Camp' bucks this trend in a big way and offers a decent watch for the most part but a horrific climax which you just won't see coming.
The plot follows a shy and possibly mute young girl, Angela, whose strange behaviour is the result of being the sole survivor of a tragic boating accident that took the lives of her father and brother several years previously. Since the accident she has lived with her freakish and obsessive aunt and, as the title suggests, is sent to a summer camp along with her protective and loyal cousin, Ricky. Inevitably, the girl's reluctance to speak or take part in the camp activities arouses the ire of the camp bullies who, as the plot progresses, start being killed one by one by an unknown attacker until the final, shocking reveal unmasks a dark and twisted undertow.
In its summer camp setting the film was clearly attempting to rip off 'Friday the 13th' and yet (much like 'The Burning' (1981)) is actually a far better film than the original. Whereas I have always found 'Friday the 13th' to simply be one-dimensional fun kills, 'Sleepaway Camp' has well-drawn characters that the audience really cares about. It is easy to identify with the various youthful insecurities portrayed on screen which makes the film much more engaging than it's more famous predecessor. Even the drawing of the bullies themselves offers insights into their vulnerabilities which adds depth to their deaths. But let's not think this is some intense introspective teen drama: it's a Slasher, and the kills are as imaginative as you would expect from a film in a genre defined by gore and grisly murders.
and then there's the ending. Apparently, the movie is famous for its final reveal. However, I approached the movie knowing absolutely nothing about it and wasn't even expecting a shock ending or, if anything, I expected a Jason-emerging-from-the-lake shock ending as a nod to 'Friday the 13th'. So for me the ending was genuinely surprising and shocking. Obviously, if you haven't already seen the movie and are reading this review then you know now that there is a twist ending but still, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
Unfortunately, in a similar way to the aforementioned 'The Burning' the film suffers from its surface similarity to the far more famous 'Friday the 13th'. As a result I can imagine a potential viewer being turned off by imagining something derivative in an already derivative genre. However, if this is you, I entreat you to give 'Sleepaway Camp' a watch, it is far greater than many "classic" slashers and deserves much, much more recognition.
Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
Watchable sequel which is preferable to the original
I wasn't a fan of the first 'Insidious'. In fact, I laughed at some of it and facepalmed through the rest. So, I was understandably reluctant to put myself through another 90 minutes derivative of better horror movies I have already seen ('Amityville', 'Poltergeist' – the originals, of course), and yet, I have to say that I found 'Insidious: Chapter 2' a far superior film. Far from a classic, just short of being good
but certainly watchable, and even creepy in a couple of places.
The plot follows on from the events of the first 'Insidious' (as indeed the end of the first movie sets up) and has the Lambert family once again troubled by malevolent entities. However, thankfully, this time the comical demon from the first film is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the plot revolves around the father's possession by one of the entities from the "further" (the netherworld realm where he astral-travelled in 'Insidious' to save his son) and the team of psychic investigators who, along with his wife and child, set out to save him.
Now, many chastise the movie for being confusing, and sure the flashbacks and references to the first movie along with the shifts from this world to the "further" require a bit of effort to piece together. However, this is no bad thing and I found it a refreshing change from the one-dimensional story of the original. In addition, while the painfully predictable jump-scares annoyed the hell out of me, and some of the ghosts just weren't scary there were a few moments in the movie which gave off a bit of a chill. Maybe this chill-factor won't stand up to a second viewing, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find some of them quite effective first time around.
A lot of people credit James Wan with re-inventing the horror genre. I have always found this annoyingly over-stated as his movies are largely style over substance and rip-off virtually every other horror you can think of. Horror auteur he certainly is not, but in attempting something a little more ambitious with 'Insidious: Chapter 2' he has made a decent movie and left me curious about the upcoming third instalment.
It Follows (2014)
Innovative horror that gets deep under the skin
Jay (Maika Monroe) is a young, attractive girl coming-of-age who lives in the suburbs and, like pretty much every other young person, is finding out who she is through trial, through error, and with her friends for company. She is seeing a guy, Hugh, who acts a little odd sometimes but otherwise seems nice and trustworthy so one night she consents to his advances and they share an awkward but intimate moment in the back of his car. However, her post-coital bliss is cut short when Hugh inexplicably chloroforms her. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair in a derelict building where Hugh is rambling an apology about how he is doing this to her to show her that it's real, that it sometimes takes the form of someone you love to mess with you, and that she has to sleep with someone to pass on the curse. She is convinced he is mad
until she sees "it".
The rest of the film sees "it" stalking Jay. Fortunately, she is able to demonstrate the reality of "it" to her friends who band together around her, without the help from any adult authority, as they try to understand the nature of this thing and how they can help her friend given her reluctance to merely pass it along by sleeping with another poor unsuspecting horny teen.
Honestly, the culmination of the first act of the film, in the derelict building, came as a complete surprise: the scene showed me a fresh vision of horror which was genuinely scary and discomforting despite my jaded tastes. The slowness of the preceding scenes matured into a crushing, intense uncertainty when I realised that it wasn't what I expected from a horror and felt, for the first time in a long while, a sense of not knowing what I was watching.
The rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to this chilling reveal. To be frank, I can't think of how it could. Rather, the themes and references that led to the reveal are unpacked to flesh out the film's universe. We see multiple scenes of urban decay and adult authority figures are conspicuous by their absence. In addition, the refreshingly natural colour palette (not that grungy green which seems to characterise most horror movies these days) and a creepy score create a palpable sense of alienation and loneliness which mirrors the characters' confusion as they attempt to battle this malevolent force in the middle of the standard sexual and identity confusions of youth.
What's more, as the film progresses we realise that despite being set in the present the cars, TVs, and clothes seem to be imported in from the 80s. At first incongruous, as the film progresses I saw that these choices could be seen as an homage to the slasher movies of the late 70s/early 80s, especially John Carpenter's 'Halloween', with their subtexts of the dangers of unsupervised teenagers having sex which is clearly much of what 'It Follows' is concerned with. The result is a film which appears bold and fresh, but under closer examination reveals a fertile heritage of horror which it gains much from drawing upon and referring to throughout the runtime. However, all this is so artfully executed and to such a great effect that a familiarity with this lineage is not required and, moreover, the film still has much to offer those that are.
As it seems to be the case these days, horror movies without the tiresome jump-scares or which don't regurgitate haunted houses, creepy kids, or possessed girls get a lot of abuse from certain sections of the horror audience. If you like those tropes, avoid 'It Follows'. If you like fresh, daring, and thoughtful horror which lingers long after the film ends, watch it. Now!
The Pyramid (2014)
Law of rapidly diminishing returns
At an archaeological dig in Egypt, a small team of American archaeologists, along with two media people recording the dig for posterity (whose footage is incorporated into the narrative in semi-found-footage fashion), discover a pyramid with an unusual three-sided design buried under the desert sands. However, after the initial thrill of discovery the team are told that they have to leave the site in two days due to the increasingly volatile political climate of the country. Hands tied, and despite not having all of the relevant information they were attempting to accumulate through technological equipment, the team decide to enter the pyramid themselves and promptly get lost in the pyramids labyrinthine chambers only to find that they are far from alone.
The set-up of the movie is fine. Ancient Egypt has always held a perennial fascination with its complicated myth structure and odd-looking gods, and the claustrophobia of the pyramid's interior (like 'As Above, So Below' (2014) and 'The Descent' (2005) before it) offers an immediate chill-factor. However, while the first third of the movie sets things up quite nicely, the second third is considerably worse. Films with this theme usually gain a lot from observing the change in personality in members of the group as each of them attempts to make sense of their plight and decide on the means of their salvation. And yet, when the same trope occurs here it feels flat and lifeless and the sense of foreboding from being unable to exit the way they entered is also weak. And then the final third of the movie is even worse than the second; when the monster is revealed it is, well frankly, laughable and when the unfortunate members of the team die I didn't really care.
All in all, it feels like the team behind the movie thought the Egypt story, Descent-style conceit, and found footage camera (which they seem to just forget about whenever it is inconvenient for the narrative) would carry it. As a result, the movie coasts along on autopilot and consistently offers the minimum so that by the end it just came off as a silly waste of time and I felt cheated as a horror fan. If you like Egypt movies, there are much better Egypt movies. If you like claustrophobia movies, there are much better claustrophobia movies. And of you like found-footage movies, there are much better found-footage movies. Watch 'The Pyramid' when you have exhausted all of them.
As Above, So Below (2014)
A found-footage Indiana Jones which is possibly punching above its weight in the ideas department
"Found-footage? Pfft" you may say. And yes, it's fashionable to dismiss found-footage films as passe and beneath us
we all do it. However, upon consideration this criticism doesn't really hold much water when scrutinised. Sure, the majority of found-footage movies are bad, but then this may have something to do with the terrible plots, poor scripting, and weak acting these movies exhibit
aspects which arguably wouldn't have been redeemed by a more conventional cinematic approach. Conversely, movies which have a solid idea, are carefully scripted, and well-acted lose little from being done as found-footage and, in some instances, are better for it. Right, that prejudice dealt with, I have to say that 'As Above, So Below' isn't a fantastic movie. In fact, it's barely a scary movie
however, it gives it everything it has and even where it doesn't quite cut it I found that I respected the movie for trying.
The protagonist is a young archaeologist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) who is continuing her father's work searching for the fabled Philosopher's Stone – a mythical item believed to possess the ability to transform lead into gold as well as confer immortality. Her quest takes her to Paris where she intends to descend into the infamous real-life Catacombs and to do so she and her colleague seek the help of a small troupe of aloof French types who know the labyrinthine tunnels well. They enter the catacombs and it doesn't take long before members of the group experience paranormal events like seeing long-dead friends or family and the events which killed them. Soon, they pass the point of no return and, in a desperate attempt to escape, descend deeper and deeper into darkness.
The setting of the movie is genuinely macabre, and like 'The Descent' the simple fact of being in a series of underground tunnels immediately creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere which pushes the story along at a nice pace. However, while 'The Descent' is half group psychology story and half monster-living-underground story, 'As Above, So Below' is more consistent in that it soon becomes clear that what the group are experiencing are their own repressed fears and guilt which, in order to survive, they must confront and being a horror movie, many don't. However, while the movie sets up the suspense well and executes some nice chills when they enter the Catacombs, the chills soon settle into temperate mildness and never really threatens to scare. In addition, the movie adds a mythological dimension to the plot in constantly referencing Dante's 'Inferno' which describes the various levels of Hell something which we are led to believe the group are inching ever closer to as they continue deeper; however, whether this is a literal Hell, a psycho-spiritual Hell, or both is left deliberately ambiguous at the ending.
Horror movies are often treated as dumb. Something which I have always considered a criminal mis-representation as the best horror movies touch something deep within our psyches. In trying to inject some intelligence into the genre, I applaud the movie. However, crucially, while playing with some meaty ideas as the film plays itself out I began to feel that the emphasis on these mythological underpinnings detracted from the impact of the movie and what's more the lack of any substantial engagement with the themes meant that, by the end, the movie felt like a faux-intellectual exercise rather than a whistle-stop tour of the guilt-ridden reaches of our characters' souls.
Still, 'As Above, So Below' is a decent watch due to some good acting, decent direction, and a great location which, like I say, even though the movie fails to achieve what it set out to do nonetheless deserves applause for attempting to be original.
The Babadook (2014)
Classic horror movies have always gained their power from externalising on screen those deep, dark fears we'd rather forget. Whether it be the 1930s Universal Movie Monsters which were updates of long-told folk tales or the Slasher boom of the 1970s and 1980s with their commentary on the fallibility of our own parents, a good horror movie has always been one which knows how to push our buttons and is not afraid to, well, scare us. Unfortunately, many horror movies over the last couple of decades have taken the superficial route of quiet-loud dynamics and/or excessive gore to get by
and oh how boring it is. However, Writer/Director Jennifer Kent has delivered something which, although not a "classic", nevertheless takes the horror back to the disturbing territory where it thrives.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother struggling to cope. She is still finding it difficult to deal with the violent death of her husband several years before and her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is terrified by a monster which he believes is haunting him. At first Amelia dismisses his claims as a particularly disruptive form of childish imagination but when a creepy book is delivered which tells the story of Mr. Babadook, she begins to suspect that a sinister presence is indeed nearby.
The film then shows Amelia as she slowly unravels and succumbs to the monsters malevolence, in the process becoming a threat to both herself and Samuel. Upto this point the movie has crafted a bleak and empty atmosphere illustrative of the emotional landscape of a woman at the end of her tether. However, from this point on the movie shifts into brutal and horrifying territory. Now, don't get me wrong even at its most terrifying moments, the film never once resorts to the cheap scare-tactics so overemployed by contemporary horrors. Instead, the scares build on the actions of the characters which have been meticulously built on the carefully constructed atmosphere.
By the end I felt exhausted from the ordeal of watching someone purge (literally) the corrosive effects of grief to rediscover the fundamental values of their existence. Heavy stuff, and certainly an emotional weight not something usually ascribed to the horror genre. Which is the real tragedy as this kind of emotional raw-nerve is precisely the ground horror was built to explore.
In some ways it reminded me of Andrzej Zulawski's 'Possession' (1981) in that, while still a horror, it is more art-house than grind-house. For this reason the film may confuse or alienate some. However, if you have a real regard for the potential of the genre then it is well worth a watch.
A real stinker!
A young girl dies mysteriously after playing with a Oujia board. Her friends try to contact her through said medium and make contact with malevolent spirits who, it is revealed, were responsible for their friend's death and seeks to take their lives too.
Plot-wise, I guess it's pretty standard. Has potential even, as after all Ouija boards still have the power to creep many out. However, the movie is woefully below par. The first half moves slowly (not in a good way) and in the second half, when the contact with the malevolent spirit is made and people get offed, it just fails to scare in any way. By the one hour point, I was willing the painfully boring ordeal to end.
Why is it so ineffective? Well, the story is badly plotted, the characters are one-dimensional, the script is deplorably written, and the acting is weak. Plus, it took me a good long while to figure out that the lead characters are supposed to be high-school age as they are clearly all well into their twenties.
Movies like this give the horror genre (which I love) a cheap name. Avoid it.
Some nice creepy moments in an otherwise all-too familiar territory
Love it or (more often) hate it, there's no disputing the fact that (along with the 'Saw' franchise, which is arguably more slasher/torture-porn), and despite the fact that it owes an awful lot to 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999) in its found-footage conceit, the 'Paranormal Activity' horror franchise has defined horror since the first one back in 2007. Since the major success of the first movie each subsequent sequel up to 'Paranormal Activity 4' has enlarged its internal universe with story lines following on from the events of the first movie as well as, more impressively, story lines which both flesh out a surprisingly cohesive and eerie back-story.
'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones' breaks a little with this tradition. Instead, describing itself as a "cousin" to the first four movies, this film takes a sideways step from the events surrounding the family of Katie and Kristi and chooses to change its setting to a socially deprived Hispanic community. The found-footage conceit is still in place but the change of setting is refreshing and yet loses nothing of the chill factor as we watch three friends become embroiled in these dark machinations: one of whom, Jessie, is a "marked one" and whose personal transformation we follow.
So is it scary? Umm, well, in bits. The main hallmark of the franchise is the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD jump-scare. Something which infuriates many in its predictability but which nonetheless remains effective something like the Big Mac of horror movie scare-tactics. And for better or for worse, these remain in place. However, I found the overall atmosphere of the first thirty or forty minutes actually quite creepy. However, this tension dropped off considerably after this point so that by the time the climax at the creepy house from 'Paranormal Activity 3' (my favourite of the franchise) there was little left.
Still, this is not to say that I was bored. I just wasn't scared.
Overall, I think it is an interesting installment of the continued 'Paranormal Activity' experiment, one which goes a long way to unlocking the events that preceded it and also one which lays groundwork which continued installments can build upon. However, herein lies the failing: I think the movie would offer very little to a viewer not familiar with the previous films while for those who have seen the previous films, things just seem very, very familiar.
The Quiet Ones (2014)
Passable, if a little underwhelming, Hammer fare
Set during the 1970s, charismatic Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) enlists a couple of his students and a cameraman (Sam Claflin) in an experiment to prove his pet theory that supernatural powers exist but are a manifestation of psychological trauma. In order to do this they study a young woman by the name of Jane Harper who displays telekinetic abilities but attributes it to an evil entity called Evey. The group hole up in an abandoned house-cum-makeshift research lab and Professor Coupland's theory is put to the test as all manner of creepy incidents take place and relations between the group become strained.
The problem with the movie is it just isn't that scary. The reason? Well, to me it felt like in both its content and its execution it was trying to be too many things at once. In terms of content it felt like the movie was part possession movie/part haunted house/part occult thriller. In addition, the religious doubt subplot of the cameraman introduced at the beginning doesn't seem to go anywhere and I have no idea why it was set in the 1970s. In terms of style, this confusion comes out in the feeling that it was trying to straddle both traditional narrative conventions and found-footage. Additionally, the movie seems to be going down an English understated scare approach for most of the movie until we see a conspicuous special effect which, in context, just looks cheap. I get the feeling that, given Hammer's heritage (and the success of 'The Woman in Black' from 2012) the movie was written as a slow and subdued Gothic atmosphere soaked piece but execs worried it wouldn't cut it and decided to ramp it up in a few places.
I don't mean to sound so damning, as I found it quite easy to watch and not unenjoyable. However, I constantly found my attention drawn to other things (characters' wardrobes, editing etc.) when the movie was trying to build suspense which is always a sign that something is fundamentally missing. Still, the movie does carry with it a certain base-line creepy atmosphere from the locations and the performances are solid. But I just can't help feeling that it was imagined as being something slightly different and which would have been much better.
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Bloody awful. I've had scarier kebabs.
Arguably since 'Black Christmas' (1974), and certainly since 'Halloween' (1978), films in the slasher genre have been distinguished by a strict set of tropes. Namely: a horrific event kept secret by the guardians of a community; the anniversary of said event sometime later; a deranged killer that typically uses a sharp object as a weapon; a group of good-looking teens who fail to heed the warnings from the guardians and are thus killed in gloriously grotesque ways; the "final girl" – the surviving member of the group, usually female. Most slashers largely follow this template and the joy of a good slasher is not to see how they avoid these genre conventions
but rather seeing how they embrace them and embellish them. However, 'My Bloody Valentine' is bitterly disappointing in that, despite its high regard among many slasher fans, it simply trots out the format related above in the blandest and most uninspiring of ways.
The film begins with the community preparing for its first Valentine's Ball in 20 years; however, the mayor is keen to play down this fact as, through a weak exposition scene, we're told that a mining accident 20 years before was caused by supervising workers neglecting their duty and going to the Ball. During the accident lots of men died and one man, Harry Warden, survived through recourse to cannibalism and, the following year, took his revenge on the two supervisors by cutting out their hearts and warning the town not to have a dance ever again. At the same time the town is preparing for its revived Valentine's Ball, a young man called TJ has just returned from a failed trip out west to find that his girlfriend Sarah has taken up with his friend, Axel, in his absence. Relations are strained but everybody is looking forward to the party which is unfortunately cancelled when people start dying again and their hearts are sent to the mayor and police chief in heart-shaped boxes. Undeterred, the youngsters decide to stage their own party (at the mine, obviously) which is when the real massacre begins.
The set up sounds absolutely fine, intriguing even, but in EVERY regard the movie fails in the execution. It is paced very slowly as it takes a long time for the killings to really kick in but in the meantime the limp script fails to engage us in the characters or flesh out the back-story. In fact, half-way through I began to wonder if the woeful acting is suffocating a standard script, or if half-way decent actors are doing their best with a limp script (the screenwriter John Beaird also did 'Happy Birthday to Me' the same year which also suffers from the should've been much, much better charge). Although the answer is probably both. Either way, I couldn't have cared less as the kids are offed (apart from the older guy, Hollis, for some reason) and the reveal of the killer was rendered a dud as it was basically broadcast since the middle of the film. Inextricably entwined in this web of blandness is the total lack of atmosphere, even during the climax down the mine.
The sad thing about it is that the movie very easily could've been an utter classic. The mining town setting, for example, is an outstanding idea criminally left to rot; I can imagine a Dario Argento or Wes Craven utilising the mine as a complex metaphor for the labyrinthine passageways of the subconscious mind filled with all our personal and collective dark, repressed desires. Instead, the mine is utilised as a mine. That's just weak. Even the "final girl" trope: down the mine it looks like Sarah is doing the "facing upto extreme situations" bit and then it just falls flat and she ends up watching the two guys duke it out.
Like many movies in the genre, 'My Bloody Valentine' has maintained a certain notoriety in being cut extensively in regard to the graphic kills. However, even in this regard, while the kills demonstrate some modicum of cool make-up effects, they lack the all-out Tom Savini style gore that enabled 'Friday the 13th' to rise above its limitations which, combined with the utter absence of suspense, renders the kills pedestrian in my opinion.
From the notoriety and good-standing the film has with slasher fans, and the setting with the mine, I really expected to like this movie but it lacks everything a good slasher should have. Watch it if, like me, you like going through the back catalogue of Golden Age slashers, but otherwise I wouldn't lose sleep over not watching it.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Interesting idea but criminally flawed death thrall for the Count
Hammer's second attempt to modernise the Dracula franchise (after the also-flawed-but-enjoyable Dracula AD 1972), 'The Satanic Rites of Dracula' has our good friend the Count (Christopher Lee, of course) inexplicably revived and fraternising among England's elite and powerful who we see in the opening scene performing a, umm, Satanic Rite and who the police soon begin investigating. What follows is a plot which starts as a hard-boiled 70s TV detective story and ends on an oddly James Bond note when the scope of Dracula's dastardly plan is revealed. In between these two extremes lurks a few minutes of traditional Hammer fare when Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course) is drafted in as an occult expert. For these brief moments, Cushing's class threatens to redeem the film but Cushing is not a Bond type hero and the potentially intriguing head-to-head with Dracula and the climax itself both quickly lose tension. As such, along with its pointless and go-nowhere Satanic "theme" (probably just an excuse for some tit shots), the film is a confused heap.
The film was released in the same year as 'The Exorcist' which in its re-envisioning of Horror beckoned quite authoritatively the next pendulum swing of the genre back across the pond having been in blighty since the late 1950s and Hammer's own 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (1957) and the studio's first stab at the legend with 'Dracula' (1958). It is interesting to note that Christopher Lee is the actor who put in the most performances as the immortal count and with 'The Satanic Rites of Dracula' finally hung up his cape. This wasn't to stop Hammer releasing the kung-fu vampire movie 'The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires' the following year – which, needless to say, I haven't seen.
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
A ripping vampire yarn and that's about it
In the late 1950s Hammer Films revolutionised horror with the likes of 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (1957) and 'Dracula' (1958) which, for the time, pushed boundaries in terms of gore (not least through the knowledgeable use of colour film) and eroticism. They were commercial and critical successes that resurrected a dead genre (pun intended) and opened the door for a boom in horror movies equivalent to that in the 1930s.
However, cut to the beginning of the 1970s and society itself had gone from Black and White to Technicolour due to the flowering of the counter-culture which saw all social institutions subject to intense criticism or outright attack and in horror we had seen the all-out assault of George A. Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' (1968). As a result, recognising that quaint Vampire movies from England just don't get the scares they used to, Hammer tried to change things up. One thing they tried was ditching the subtle but potent eroticism for simply showing more tits and having the women engage in lesbianism. Another, more respectable, thing was to attempt to update the vampire story to make it more relevant to a modern audience. And from this comes 'Dracula AD 1972'.
The plot is basically the same as any other of the Dracula sequels that came in the wake of 'Dracula' (1958): the count, dead since his last encounter with Van Helsing is brought back by a dutiful underling and seeks revenge. The film begins with an impressive period piece prologue showing Dracula's staking a hundred years ago and then, panning up, a plane screeches across the sky announcing the updated setting. The film then cuts to an amusing scene where a group of young hip cats (led by the charismatic and aloof Johnny Alucard) have gate-crashed a party and are "terrorising" the owners in the most limp and middle-class way. Later on they talk of where the next far out thrill will come from when Johnny suggests a black mass. They all attend for kicks but get freaked out when Johnny seems to take it too seriously and wants Jessica (family name Van Helsing) played by Stephanie Beacham, to get involved. She declines but the Prince of Darkness is summoned with the aid of another girl and, awakened to the twentieth century, Dracula is out for revenge.
The film has been criticised by many as a failed attempt to desperately breathe life into the franchise, and while that charge can't be escaped, the conceit of the film to update Dracula is not a bad one. If anything, the failing of the film is that it didn't go far enough in its updating and still feels like the reserved period pieces which came before just in funky threads and platforms. What's more, director Alan Gibson (who would direct the next attempt to update Dracula with the much worse 'The Satanic Rites of Dracula') is no Terence Fisher and lacks the directorial subtleties which distinguish the earlier features. Still, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are sheer class, as always, and raise the film up a notch or two.
All told, it's a decent attempt, with some good moments, and manages to be fun ride. However, considering that 'The Exorcist' was around the corner, it's no surprise poor old Dracula couldn't cut it. Which is sad.
The Burning (1981)
A shameless imitation which manages to surpass the original in every way!
however, it should be noted that the "original" referred to is 'Friday the 13th' from the year before and the word should be used reluctantly as it too recycled the finer parts of many (better) films that came before it (not least Mario Bava's 'Bay of Blood' from 1971). But still, 'Friday the 13th' is the film that, through being a financial success, really established the slasher genre in all its cliché glory and it is clearly this that 'The Burning' was hoping to cash in on.
The plot hardly needs detailing: a large group of children, some older and some younger, spend the holidays in a summer camp where a deranged former caretaker, Cropsey, enacts his brutal and gory revenge for the prank-gone-wrong which left him horrendously burned some years before. So far, so predicable slasher and yet, the film retains a high watch-ability factor from clearly being done by people who knew what they were doing as the film was the first to be written and produced by the Weinsteins, the gory kills are courtesy of maestro Tom Savini (who had actually worked on 'Friday the 13th), the soundtrack was done my prog-rock king Rick Wakeman, and the cast includes good performances from a young Jason Alexander (George from 'Seinfeld') and Fisher Stevens (the Indian guy from 'Short Circuit'). To top this off, Tony Maylam's direction (although he wouldn't go onto to produce anything else of real note) is self-assured and effortlessly builds tension as the kills come in and the horror of the situation dawns on the unwitting children and staff.
Comparing 'The Burning' to 'Friday the 13th' (a film which I actually don't rate highly at all), I think that a key difference is that the group of children in 'The Burning' is larger. As a result, the film takes its time at the beginning establishing the personalities of some of the key characters by playing them off against each other in the form of the cliques and bullying that typify these kinds of groups. This makes the characters three-dimensional and means that we care much more about the characters as they die unlike in 'Friday the 13th' where people are just fodder for imaginative kills. The result? All the gore but a more engaging film.
Unfortunately, because the film was basically self-consciously imitating 'Friday the 13th', it can never escape the comparisons and anyone that hasn't seen it would be forgiven for not wanting to because of that. But those that have seen it can vouch for the fact that, imitation it may be, but the quality of the movie more than stands up for itself and is a must-see for genuine horror fans.
The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Solid slasher entry which is far more than the sum of its parts
I sat down to watch this not really expecting that much. I am a fan of Slasher movies in general and movies from the Slasher Golden Age (1974 – 1984) so came across "House on Sorority Row" by simply going through the back catalogue. One quick look at the lurid cover, the title, and a quick scanning of the plot I figured I would quickly be struggling not to turn it off from being bored by pedestrian acting, woeful direction, and a plot that was exploitative and, even worse, cliché
even back in 1983. Still, in the interests of better understanding the genre, I decided to give it a go and must admit to having been very pleasantly surprised.
The house in "House on Sorority Row" has been occupied for the past few years by a group of average, fun-loving, all-American college girls who are keen to organise an end-of-year party. However, for the past few years they have had the misfortune of being supervised by the mean and austere Ms. Slater who forbids the party going ahead. Undeterred, the girls decide to play a prank on her which goes horribly wrong and results in the death of Ms. Slater. The girls try to hide the body but as people start being brutally murdered the girls begin to wonder if Ms. Slater did indeed die or if something more sinister is responsible.
The movie has all of the plot devices of a bog-standard slasher: anniversary of a gruesome event long kept secret, hot teenage victims who question authority, imaginative kills, and the final girl. However, the movie does a good job piecing these tropes together and, with the respectable performances from (most of) the cast, a good use of location, and a reputable directing job, manages to establish characters early and build the atmosphere into a suspenseful and watchable slasher thriller.
Sure, there are better films in the slasher genre (obviously the likes of 'Black Christmas' (1974) and 'Halloween' (1978) as well as lesser-known slashers like 'The Burning' (1981)) but then again, there are many, many worse films you could spend an hour-and-a-half with.
Intelligent and creepy psychological horror that shows that contemporary American horror isn't dead
Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has spent the last eleven years incarcerated in a mental institution after recovering from a harrowing childhood trauma. Upon being released, His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) meets him and tells him that the events that unfolded eleven years earlier, which saw their dad kill their mom, wasn't the result of their father going mad but instead the result of a curse that befalls whoever owns a special mirror which their family was in possession of. What's more, Kaylie has gotten hold of the mirror through her work and is set on proving the mirror's supernatural power by taking it to their former home and meticulously filming what transpires overnight. At first sceptical and believing his sister to be suffering from a psychological aberration the likes of which he is familiar with from his incarceration, Tim gradually begins to doubt himself as the mirror begins to play increasingly devious mind-games with them.
Like most American horror films of recent years, the film is slickly produced, oozes atmosphere, and directed by someone who knows what they're doing as the fragmented backstory pieces itself together in tandem with the increasing eeriness as the mirror's power takes hold. However, what sets this film apart from the slew of horror flicks that slop out each year are some very convincing performances from both Old Tim and Kaylie but especially young Tim and Kaylie. What's more the film has (stop press) an intelligent script. Okay, it doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the refreshing lack of gore, the focus on character, and the consistent theme of the shaky foundations which our ideas and memories are built on lends the film a driving watch-ability factor and to top it off, the film doesn't sell itself out at the end and leave the viewer feeling cheated at having invested their time and thought into the film.
A lot of the integrity the film seems to exhibit no doubt derives from the fact that it was originally conceived as a short movie by director Mike Flanagan back in 2006 and did the festival circuit under the name of "Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan". So what we have is a near decade long gestation and the tight plot, well-developed back-story, and artful playing with memory and hallucination across two time-lines at the films conclusion are testament to the care with which the project has been handled. Other directors in the genre (e.g. James Wan) should sit up and start taking notes.
Curiously, another "haunted mirror" movie was released later in the year across the pond, simply going under the title "The Mirror". The movies share nothing save the conceit of using a mirror but it also has some good chills and makes for an effective complement to "Oculus". Watch both in the same sitting at night for some real old-school scares.
The Mirror (2014)
Forget the comparisons this found-footage film stands up on its own
Since 1996, former magician turned professional sceptic James Randi has been offering a million dollars to anyone that can provide proof that psychic and/or supernatural phenomena exist. 'The Mirror' sees three English flatmates, Matt, Steve, and Jemma, attempt the challenge by buying a haunted mirror over the internet and continuously filming what happens. At first, the whole thing is played for a lark
even getting a Ouija board in on the action, but when Matt starts acting strangely the whole thing takes on a darker edge.
Now I know what you're thinking: found footage? Seen it all before. Sure, the set-up of the film seems to defy the need to be original to an almost belligerent degree in the wake of the likes of 'V/H/S' (2012), the whole 'Paranormal Activity' series and its host of rip-offs, going all the way back to 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999). What's more the idea of a haunted mirror was done the year before in the bigger budget American production 'Oculus'. However, despite sitting down thinking I'd be turning it off after twenty minutes I found myself immediately drawn in by the playful banter of the three flatmates and the subtle shifts into increasingly eerie territory as we wonder what is behind Matt's increasingly erratic behaviour.
A big difference between this and the 'Paranormal Activity' series is that while that series relied on a quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG idea to win cheap scares, 'The Mirror' just sticks with quiet-quiet-quiet which doesn't release the tension and instead maintains it right to the end. Sure there are a few plot-holes, for example why don't they call the police after they are broken into, why don't they investigate the mirror or send any emails to the seller, and what's with the eye thing however I was able to easily forgive these because the chilling atmosphere was one I hadn't felt from a horror movie for a long time.
A decent movie which, despite resolutely not adding anything new to the genre, nevertheless does what it was designed to do very well. Give it a go.
An overlooked but effectively sinister and atmospheric early "slasher" movie
Alice Spages is a 12 year old girl who is hating every minute of it. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother and little sister, Karen (Brooke Shields in her first screen appearance), who gets all of the attention at home. In addition, her overbearing aunt is hostile towards her and the landlord is a sleazy character indeed. So it's no wonder the girl has some problems
but could she really be the one behind the creepy plastic mask and yellow raincoat who is responsible for strangling Karen to death, putting her body in a casket, and burning it on the day of her first communion?
Set up established, it quickly becomes clear as you watch the movie whether or not this is the case but this lack of suspense don't affect the movie in any way as the film has many other things going for it. Firstly, if we're talking about a slasher we need to ask about the kills: and kills, although not excessively gory in a Tom Savini way, don't disappoint in having have a fair amount of blood and gain something from lingering on the action a little longer than usual before cutting away. The film also pays homage to Nic Roeg's masterful psychic thriller 'Don't Look Now' (1973) in the use of a diminutive killer stalking our peripheral vision clothed in a striking raincoat, red in Roeg's film but yellow here. In addition, the film has an eerie score which complements the movie well and good performances from the cast, especially from Linda Miller who plays Alice's mother Catherine, and Paula Sheppard, who plays Alice herself.
However, the overriding characteristic of the movie is the claustrophobic air of morbidity that comes from the lashings of Catholic iconography employed throughout the film and in far from sympathetic tones. Indeed, it wouldn't be far-fetched to call the film anti-Catholic as it not only provides the film with its emotional backdrop of repression and morbidity but is also used explicitly as motivations for the characters as the film progresses. In this way the film plays effectively as a counter-point to 'The Exorcist', released three years earlier, as both films present little girls on the cusp of puberty, living with their divorced mothers, as somehow threatening or evil. However, whereas the demonic excesses of 'The Exorcist' are regarded by many to be Catholic propaganda designed to get people back to church for fear that disbelief would permit evil to enter this realm, in total contrast 'Alice, Sweet Alice' suggests it is the mechanics of devout belief inherent in the Church which are evil. In this way, 'Alice Sweet Alice' is the far more subversive movie. Plus, an interesting coincidence is that Linda Miller is the wife of none other than Jason Miller who played Father Karras in 'The Exorcist'!
Still, despite the movie's well thought out universe and cinematic literacy, 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Exorcist' are still "better" movies in my opinion. Why? Hard to say, but possibly that these two movies engage on a wider level whereas 'Alice Sweet Alice' seems like a highly-polished rant from someone who hates the church which, while hard to disagree with, seems to lack a certain distance plus the final scene is a little hokey. Still, this is nit-picking, the movie deserves far more recognition than it has received as it remains as chilling and relevant today as 40 years ago.
The City of the Dead (1960)
Overlooked but effective voyage into witch country
'City of the Dead' (US: 'Horror Hotel') is one of those cult classic horrors that you blearily stumble across in the late night TV schedules, promptly get sucked into, and which the next day you find none of your friends has heard of let alone watched and consequently has you wondering if it wasn't all just a vivid dream. A good part of this lingering feeling no doubt comes from the stifling atmosphere of gloom which the film positively oozes thanks to the fog-soaked contained soundstage sets shot in stark black and white and the presence of the ever foreboding Christopher Lee. In the movie Lee (famous for clocking in the most amount of screen representations of Count Dracula) plays Professor Driscoll, an American demonologist who is encouraged by the interest one of his students, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevens), has shown in the legend of the 17th Century witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), who was burned at the stake in Whitewood, Massachusetts in 1692, and advises her to visit the town to conduct first-hand research. She arrives and promptly disappears after checking into the Raven's Inn, a local hotel owned by Mrs. Newless, a woman who (unbeknownst to Nan) bears an uncanny resemblance to the Elizabeth Selwyn of lore. Following Nan's disappearance, concerned friends and family trace her to the town and in seeking to discover her whereabouts uncover the occult secrets of the town.
The "town cursed by a witch consumed with flames" story comes from the pen of Milton Subotsky (who would later go onto to found Amicus productions which would go toe-to-toe with Hammer Films in the classic British Horror sweepstakes) and unfortunately suffers from having been done-to-death (no pun intended) since, well, the Sixties. Indeed, maybe the film has suffered from a similarity to Mario Bava's classic 'Black Sunday' which was released the same year, has many of the same plot contrivances, and was even also filmed in black and white. This is a shame as while 'Black Sunday' has taken more than its fair share of praise since its release, 'City of the Dead' certainly deserves much more recognition than it has received as the film carries its story along well and maintains suspense throughout with a tight script, good performances, and manages to hit the kind of creepy New England Gothic atmosphere that H. P. Lovecraft was so fond of right on the mark. So while the movie may be dated and lack the ability to scare, if watched alone at night it creates such a vivid atmosphere that you shouldn't be surprised if Black-robed figures appear in your dreams that night. So mote it be.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Classy and classic Hammer horror foray into the world of The Occult
Famous since the late fifties for reviving the Horror Monster genre with the likes of 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (1957), 'Dracula' (1958), and 'The Mummy' (1959), Hammer Horror turned to famed writer Dennis Wheatley's 1934 novel 'The Devil Rides Out' for this suave and stylish take on Satanism among the English upper-classes. In doing so, they were able to produce something recognisably Hammer in its execution but noticeably different in its tone and were able to craft not only one of their finest pictures but also one of the first philosophical introductions to authentic occultism in cinema.
Part of the feeling of familiarity comes from the presence of Christopher Lee (in one of his few good-guy roles) as the sombre Duc De Richleau, an occult authority who, along with his sceptical friend Rex, have to pit themselves against the charismatic Satanic cult-leader Mocata (Charles Gray) to save the souls of their friends Simon and his friend Tanith who Mocata wishes to baptise into his infernal organisation. Adding to this familiar feeling is the presence of other Hammer stalwarts composer James Bernard and director Terence Fisher who, in tandem, make sure the film is delicately placed between fast-paced and atmospheric. However, breaking with Hammer tradition the film is set in the English Countryside in the inter-war period rather than some Gothic castle in mid-19th Century Eastern Europe – a detail indebted to Wheatley's novel with all the affected airs of Englishness he was so fond of. The result is a ripping yarn that relies more on character and suspense than scares and builds on some wonderful exchanges between the parties of good and evil into a rightly famous climax when the magickal power of the two leads collide.
All but forgotten these days, back in the 1930s, Dennis Wheatley made a successful career writing his novels of swashbuckling daring-do, the best known of which handled the murky topic of Black Magic. However, far from being an advocate, Wheatley's books were often prefaced with cautionary notes to the reader of the spiritual perils of just even reading about such topics and, putting aside cynical accusations of being a clever marketing gimmick, we can perhaps attribute this to the fact that in writing 'The Devil Rides Out' Wheatley sought the advice of famed English occultist Aleister Crowley for the occult references which abound in the film. Dubbed 'The Wickedest Man in the World' by the press of the day, by the 1930s Crowley was a spent magickal force. However, he undoubtedly could still make an impression as Wheatley not only styled the charismatic Mocata on Crowley but, despite their differing views on the occult, the two became good friends and saw each other socially long after the book was completed.
If the movie has a flaw it is certainly the special effects which look awfully, awfully dated now, even slightly risible something recognised by Lee in saying that he would love to see the film remade with contemporary effects and with himself reprising his role as De Richleau. It is also interesting to note the special connection Lee seems to have with the film as he both considers the film his personal favourite of his Hammer films and was also instrumental in it being filmed as he, too, had become close friends with Wheatley in 1959 after attending a lecture Wheatley gave in London. Later, in 1964, Lee approached the Hammer execs with the idea of adapting 'The Devil Rides Out' to the screen. Initially enthusiastic, Hammer found production of the movie delayed by the British censor on the grounds of the films earnest treatment of Satanism. Such concerns seem so quaint and, well, English these days as a modern viewer will certainly have been subjected to far more transgressive depictions of Satanism on screen. However, we have to remember that, for the time, the film was testing the limits; something Hammer studios had done since the late 1950s and it's unjust that by the early seventies Hammer Horror would suffer from being saddled with the label of "reserved" and, well, English as arguably the rising tide of horror coming from across the pond ('Night of the Living Dead' and 'Rosemary's Baby' (both also 1968) and 'The Exorcist (1973) to name a few) owed much to Hammer's intrepid spirit of stepping on hallowed ground.
So, while other films may surely shock or scare more, 'The Devil Rides Out' can still manage to hold its own in terms of sheer style and atmosphere alone, but can also boast authentic occult credentials that few others can. Classic.
Visually stunning yet powerful and thought-provoking social commentary
'Häxan', often going under the translated title, 'Witchcraft through the Ages' is a gloriously bizarre film from the early days of cinema which documents the history of witch-cults in the Middle Ages and the church-led inquisitions that hunted them. What's more, the film scandalised audiences at the time with its virulently anti-Church stance and overt suggestion that the superstition which led to the persecution of witches is alive and well today but just in a more respectable guise.
The film begins soberly enough with a pseudo-scholarly presentation introducing a variety of paintings and medieval wood-cuts of the Devil presiding over Black Sabbaths and the like, where witches were believed to gather and worship their infernal master. Before long, we are introduced to glutinous and repulsive men of the cloth who, in the dramatised sequences, persecute and torture women accused of witchcraft which they justify with their contorted religious ideology. However, while it is certainly a tragic tale which is being told, these lascivious and diabolic confessions provide the highlights of the movie as Christensen is able to bring them to life using a range of camera effects to produce a stunning and delirious phantasmagoria brimming with the kind of demonic imagery favoured by the likes of Church-sponsored artists like Hieronymous Bosch. Indeed, the film holds nothing back both in its depiction of the Devil ravishing women in their beds, witches kissing the Devil's backside, trampling on the cross, and wild perverse revelries where unchristened children are feasted upon. Furthermore, the accusing finger the film points at the monks who, guilt-racked and hypocritical, perpetrated such horrors on innocent women is unrelenting and rightfully indignant.
At the end of the film it suggests that the (then) modern-day phenomenon of hysteria (from the Greek for "womb" and commonly attributed to women's wombs becoming dislocated and floating round the body) is an updated version of medieval witches. Although far from an expert, I think this carries some weight as hysteria has been attributed to social pressures put on women to repress themselves and their sexuality something which was certainly abundant in the Middle Ages. We should also remember that, although hysteria as a phenomenon is all but extinct these days, it was common throughout the Victorian era and well into the 20th Century (and gave Freud a career) and the parallel the conclusion makes must have been a strange and unsettling one.
Perhaps it is this depth of insight that has led to the film being re-released in the 1940s and again (in an abridged version) in the 1960s. However, the latter version has the inter-titles read by countercultural guru William Burroughs and is scored with a Jazz soundtrack. Although, I haven't seen it, I am reliably informed that it should be avoided. If it ain't broke
In conclusion, the film is unique in its ambitions, its content, and its style and is a testament to the skill, ingenuity, and integrity of Christensen himself. Unfortunately, a lot of Christensen's other films have been lost; however, "only" being known for a film with the stature of 'Häxan' is a cinematic fate far greater than many writers or directors will ever achieve.
The Omen (1976)
Good morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world
so went the end-times paranoia marketing campaign for 'The Omen'. Evidently the campaign, initiated months before the film's release, was a success as Warner Brothers' tale of an impeding apocalypse wrought upon the earth by the birth of The Antichrist as foretold in the Book of Revelations was a huge commercial hit and can still raise a shiver even today.
In the movie Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, an American ambassador who is approached by a mysterious priest who offers him a baby boy when his pregnant wife suffers a stillborn delivery. Thorn accepts the boy and the family are then transferred to England where things are fine until five years later when disturbing events begin to occur which suggest that the ambassador's "son", Damien, is a chip off a much more sinister block. The ambassador is then tracked down by an eccentric priest blabbering about the end-of-the-world and Damien's role as The Antichrist. Initially dismissive, Thorn gradually comes to believe the priest's eschatological spiel when more people die and he discovers a birthmark on Damien's head in the shape of 666, the number of the beast, and decides to do what he can to avert the coming apocalypse.
Following on from the Big Budget clout of earlier demonic problem-child horror 'The Exorcist' (1973), 'The Omen' seemed to take the lifeblood of its success from the deeply buried fear that there may actually be something in all of those un-listened to Sunday-school sermons drowning in the public's unconscious. With this lingering religious fear in the background, and accentuated by the ominous and Oscar winning score by Jerry Goldsmith, the hysterical atmosphere created by the film is enough to suspend even the most atheistic viewer's disbelief and remains my abiding impression of the film beyond any of the particularities of the plot. However, in saying this there is an implied criticism which makes the film merely "watchable" to "good" and nowhere near "great"; namely, while the film has atmosphere in spades and the kills are imaginative, the script hangs lifelessly off these good points and makes the film feel flabby and even dull at points.
Perhaps, the reason for this is that whereas the two other films in the unholy trinity of demon-child horrors 'Rosemary's Baby' (1968) and 'The Exorcist' were both adapted from source novels, the genesis (pun intended) of 'The Omen' came from a realisation producer Harvey Bernhard had that the fundamentalist prophecies his born-again Christian friend would spout during conversations were in fact paranoid horror fantasies ideal for a movie. He then enlisted the help of screenwriter David Seltzer to flesh out the idea. However, in later years, Seltzer has been open about taking on the project solely due to needing money and maybe this absence of artistic commitment (so abundant in the other two films) is what explains the flabby through-line. As such, 'The Omen' lacks the Luciferian splendour of the 'Rosemary's Baby', and lacks the subtext of theological doubt that 'The Exorcist' author William Peter Blatty was wrestling with (although it shares the charge of Christian propaganda).
So, while Damien would surely get a B- in his Satanic seminary, with his teacher despairing that he has potential but just isn't applying himself, it's still a pass grade higher than many others in the class.
The Exorcist (1973)
Catholic propaganda goes for the jugular
Despite its thinly veiled misogyny and blatant stance as Catholic propaganda, few films can match the pop-culture clout of William Friedkin's 1973 tales of demonic possession, 'The Exorcist'. This especially holds true for horror movies which are usually seen by critics and the public as puerile and adolescent fantasies which are beneath them, so the level of cultural hysteria 'The Exorcist' was able to achieve – with paramedics and priests waiting in the aisles as people fainted, vomited, and claimed to be possessed as a result of watching the film – seems absurdly ridiculous in retrospect and deserves all the more respect for it.
Based on Jesuit-schooled William Peter Blatty's best-selling 1971 novel, 'The Exorcist' tells the story of Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) as she is possessed by the malevolent Babylonian demon Pazuzu and the subsequent attempt to exorcise the demon by seasoned exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Damien Karras, a young priest struggling to retain his faith in the face of his mother's illness and death. Scene set and seatbelts buckled, we then go on a visceral roller-coaster ride of profanity and blasphemy the likes of which only the truly religious (i.e. repressed) can create as the demon has Regan openly urinate on the carpet during a shindig held by her mother, violently stab her vagina with a metal crucifix while shouting "let Jesus f**k you", projectile vomit onto Father Karras, as well as turn her head 180 degrees and run down the stairs bent over backwards – all of which have entered the pop-culture lexicon and are known by many people who have not actually seen the movie.
Yes, that's all very well and good but, is it scary? Short answer: at the time, "yes", now "no", but neither is the point.
Long answer: prior to 'The Exorcist (apart from the other horror-movie cultural phenomenon 'Rosemary's Baby' from 1968) the majority of horror movies had been Gothic inspired pieces set in far-away places or at some unspecified time in the past. However, in locating the action in modern-day Georgetown and the victim being possessed through a Ouija board (still then a common board-game available from toy shops) 'The Exorcist' brought horror home in a manner as alarming as it was domestic. Furthermore, at the time, America was still in the midst of the unprecedented social instability of the civil rights movement which challenged all forms of authority and repression, including male domination and the church, and the demon's brutal habitation of a young girl could be seen to represent the effects of such an upheaval of unbelief and taps into the collective reserves of atheist as well as Catholic guilt.
As such, the film's conservative bias is visible; what's more, the misogyny of the film is seen in its suggestion that Regan's mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), is implicated in the fate of her daughter by being a divorcée with no religious belief and its assertion that grandiose metaphysical evil manifests through pubescent girls on the cusp of developing a libido. In retrospect, this medieval Judeo-Christian demonization of female sexuality is far more disturbing than the film itself. Still, there's no denying it struck a chord and the film was refused a video release in the UK by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) until 1999.
Which brings us to today; where society has become even more secular and in cinema Video-Nasties have come and gone and even torture porn is passé and the "horror" of "the scariest film of all time" just doesn't hold up. As a result, while it still has the power to slightly chill, people coming to the movie having with the hype ringing in their ears are almost guaranteed to be disappointed as was I when I saw it in 1999. However, despite the reduced fear factor and the religious, moral, and sexual conservatism, it's a film I have found rewarding in re-watching; mainly due to the performance of Jason Millar as Karras. In keeping with director William Friedkin's desire to have the movie be more "docu-drama" than fiction and only cast actors who had had a Catholic education, Millar had studied to be a Jesuit priest and lends a poignant authenticity to the character as he struggles with his own religious doubt.
All told, while I find the film morally objectionable on several fronts and not actually that scary, the conviction the cast bring to the film (Burstyn got a Best Supporting Actress nomination), the palpable sense of transgression, and the core of the film coming from the pen of a man wrestling with his own religious doubts, contribute to the film's rightful position as a classic of the genre.
Night of the Demon (1957)
New World meets the Old in this classic slice of 50s horror
The story of an unbeliever eventually being persuaded to believe in the supernatural is a common one in the horror genre, whether it be literature or cinema; however, few can claim the kind of tense atmosphere and building sense of supernatural suspense that Jacque Tourneur manages to craft so well in 'Night of the Demon' (US: 'Curse of the Demon').
Loosely based on the 1911 short story 'Casting the Runes' by M. R. James, the unbeliever in question is sceptical psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) who arrives in England to attend a paranormal seminar. Upon arriving he learns that one of his colleagues, Professor Harrington, has died in mysterious circumstances and is soon approached by the affable and charismatic Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) and warned to drop the investigation that Harrington was conducting into Karswell's alleged Satanic cult. Undeterred, Holden sets out to expose the whole thing as superstition and, from inadvertently taking receipt of a rune-inscribed parchment, becomes the victim of the same diabolical curse that claimed the life of his colleague. Of course, at the beginning, he dismisses the whole thing, but as the story unravels he finds the limits of his scepticism tested and soon the race is on to break the curse before it's too late.
Read like this, the plot sounds quite thin, but what makes the film so watchable is the series of civil-yet-hostile exchanges between Holden and Karswell which grow in sinister inevitability throughout the film. What's more, this portentous atmosphere is augmented by Holden's blind scepticism and arrogant dismissal of things he doesn't understand, which at times makes him a rather unsympathetic protagonist. In contrast, Karswell is portrayed, not as a megalomaniacal evil-doer, but as a reasonable and genuinely courteous gentleman who just wants his sect to remain secret but who, if pushed, is not afraid to wield the enormous power he commands. As an interesting occult side note, in a similar way to Boris Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig in 'The Black Cat' (1934) and Charles Grey's Mocata in 'The Devil Rides Out' (1968), Niall MacGinnis's Julian Karswell was based on the infamous English Occultist Aleister Crowley; however, the latter is presented rather more humanely than the overtly sinister and predatory portrayal of the former two movies as well as screen diabolists in general.
The other key strength of the movie is the tight direction throughout, which maintains the atmosphere of subdued menace from the opening shots of Stonehenge, through the séance scenes and exchanges between Holden and Karswell, to the climax on the train lines when the demon comes to claim its next victim. This should come as no surprise though, as a decade prior to this Tourneur had directed the horror classics 'The Cat People' (1942) and 'I Walked with a Zombie' (1943) for production company RKO, under the auspices of producer Val Lewton who was famous for his emphasis on horror-by-suggestion rather than showing. Saying this, 'Curse of the Demon' breaks with this tradition by showing the monster explicitly both at the beginning and end of the movie and much debate has gone on whether this adds to or detracts from the movie's effectiveness especially as the "monster", by 21st century special standards is, well, funny.
In Tourneur's defence, the inclusion of the monster was a post-production decision made by producer Hal E. Chester and became a major bone of contention between himself and the director. Personally, seeing the monster doesn't affect my enjoyment, but can see the benefit of it not being there and, furthermore, would entreat viewers to be kind to this potential weak-point of the movie as everything else about it just shouts "classic".
Chilling atmospheric Italian horror gore-fest cult classic
Whereas for many movies the charge of "style over substance" has always been a damning criticism, it has always been the very lifeblood of films in the Italian horror genre. One only needs to look at the masters of the genre, Bava and Argento, to see films which make so little sense they sometimes anger the viewer who is earnestly trying to find logic, but never fail to effortlessly craft disturbing atmospheres and elicit genuine horror for those ready to just go along for the ride
and Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' is no exception to this formula. Lovers of narrative and character should basically steer well clear of this one. Instead 'The Beyond' is totally about expressionistic menace and apocalyptic foreboding and it delivers both of these qualities in large doses. However, saying this, there is a plot which hangs together loosely around a hotel which sits atop a gate to Hell
and a young women called Liza (Catriona MacColl ) who inherits the hotel and plans to reopen it for business. She then meets a creepy looking blind girl who utters sinister portents regarding the hotel. After this all manner of oddness occurs and people start dying in a variety of over-the-top ways, some of which are so extreme they are funny while others are genuinely gross. Either way the kills are inventive set-pieces which, combined with the dodgy-yet-effective late seventies/early eighties soundtrack create a real sense of a disjointed lingering nightmare. Then the zombies attack! This requires the leads to seek refuge in the hotel basement except that while they find they may have escaped the zombies they have stumbled into something far more unsettling.
All in all, for all of its many, many weak points, I have yet to come across a film which chilled me so much at the end. It could be argued that with a little narrative discipline and better acting/dubbing, this film could have been a bona-fide horror classic. However, it could also be argued that, if anything, it is the very lack of logic (as with most Italian Horror films) that accentuates the sense of oddness and menace. The film is what it is, does what it does very well, and rightfully belongs to a tradition of horror that wrong-foots logic and order and plunges us into much deeper and more unsettling waters. Enjoy.
Enter the Void (2009)
New French Extremity turns metaphysical
More than any film I have seen since '2001: A Space Odyssey', Gaspar Noe's 'Enter the Void' is a film which is not watched, it is experienced. However, where Kubrick's Magnum Opus is saturated with a late sixties optimism that leaves the viewer in awe of creation by the end, Noe seems to have taken a more Freudian approach and leaves the viewer traumatised and brutalised by the violent and empty cycle of birth, life, and death. And yet, saying this, the film is not without a certain strange consolation.
This should not come as that much of a surprise to those who have seen Noe's previous movies: back in 1998, the Argentinian born French film-maker released his debut feature 'I Stand Alone', a brutal tale of a butcher-gone-mad which thrilled a few and appalled a few others but managed to fit in nicely with the nascent New French Extremity movement. He followed this up in 2001 with his international art-house "hit" 'Irreversible' which managed to boast the star power of both Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci and secured its international reputation with a seven minute plus rape scene. How did he follow this up? Well, an alinear hallucinogenic out-of-body experience based on 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' set in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo obviously.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to Oscar, a young drug-abusing American adrift in Tokyo who has an unfortunate run-in with the Japanese police when he goes to sell some drugs. Shot dead in the toilet, we see his spirit leave his body and in this state he is able to traverse space and time as he revisits various events (both idyllic and traumatic) in his life, mostly in relation to his relationship with his sister who has also descended into the Tokyo underworld. In this way, he is able to recapitulate his life and the viewer is able to piece together the shattered mess Oscar called his life. By the end, his spirit floats over the mass of the already hallucinogenic sprawl of the Tokyo metropolis and he watches various copulating couples, waiting to choose the right moment to reincarnate.
At least, this is one possible interpretation. Another is that the whole thing is a DMT inspired death thrall and nothing more spiritual than that. Whatever your metaphysical leaning in this regard, the film is both a visual masterpiece which needs to be seen to be believed and an exploration of the limits of cinematic narrative. A couple of minus points could be that it is fractionally too long and that it contains too much sex. To counter this, I would argue that as this is arguably breaking new ground in representations of life and death on film we shouldn't really judge it too harshly as it's doubtful that reincarnation would take a tidy 90 minutes. As for the sex, I would argue that while it is copious it is not actually gratuitous as sex saturates the world around us and is for so many a refuge from the pains they endure. What's more, as for the Love Hotel sequence at the film's climax, apparently the writhing and copulating couples Oscar's spirit witnesses is supposed to occur at the moment of reincarnation as it is from these that the spirit chooses the most appropriate form to reincarnate into. Although, saying this it is understandable that the unsuspecting may struggle with the relentless graphic content and the sheer length of the movie.
However, as with 'Irreversible', which behind the violence and rape is a touching and tragic love story, so with 'Enter the Void' by the end of two hours of the brutalising horrors of living and in the company of predatory shells that populate Oscar's seedy world of sex and drugs, we are left watching a moment of genuine sexual affection between Oscar's friend and his sister and are left wondering if this is Oscar's chosen reincarnation or, stripped of the metaphysics, Oscar's last wish for his sister's salvation as his drug-addled brain prepares to die. In either respect, I consider everything that came before completely necessary.
It's difficult to imagine how Noe can follow up such visionary cinema. However, as I view Noe to be more as a moral philosopher working through film than a film director I am sure that whatever stylistic or narrative direction he takes in the future we will be left with a similarly touching and harrowing experience of what it means to be human.