Welcome to the first part of our 31 Days of Fright! Every October, I watch 31 horror films that I’ve never seen before, and this year I’ve stitched together my thoughts on them into a shambling, sentient beast. 10 reviews are below the cut. Enjoy! – Joel La Puma
Dir. Mario Bava
Dir. Michael Gornick
It’s probably only the rise of the procedural, with its pallid scientific and legal answers, to blame for the horror anthology falling into disfavor. The fright anthology has a tribal draw, a sense of handed-down knowledge, and it lessons strike a religious, even Puritanical note: these are saints, and these are sinners, and this is the judgment that befalls them and the dark-clad figure doling it out. The distinct voices behind Black Sabbath and Creepshow II – Mario Bava and George Romero adapting Stephen King, respectively – recognize the elemental knowledge beneath the format and pay homage to its tropes, even as they approach it through their own obsessions. The classic formalities are present, particularly the odd comfort of hos segments: Bava lightens his tales of danger befalling sexy women and the inescapability of ancestral Europe with sardonic, amusing host segments featuring Boris Karloff, while Romero and King’s fractured Americana fits perfectly inside the pages of its comic book-style animated wraparound tale. The stories are all tense and often sickly amusing, as is traditional. But Bava’s final tale, “The Wurdulak”, undercuts the stone tablet surety with a sense of ambiguity. Its wide shots and desolate ruins contrast the tight, harrowing camerawork of the previous two stories, but rather than relief, it’s a slow, unwilling step into a world where old evils will not be quelled by piety or cautiousness or charms, where romantic idealism fails. Believe in the old laws if you wish, but don’t be surprised when you’re bound by them.
Frightmare (a.k.a. Horror Star)
Dir. Norman Thaddeus Vane
A pure addicts-only movie, but if you’ve spent your life chasing down the highs of horror films, their chilly moonlit mysteries and ensnaring lusts, you’ll surrender immediately. Ferdy Mayne is a preening delight as Conrad Ragzoff, undead horror star using inexplicable powers to take elaborate vengeance on a group of horror faithful who have stolen his corpse. The decisions made by his victims could only have their basis in cocaine, but would they have wanted to go to their graves any other way? How utterly proper.
Dir. William Girdler
Jaws with a Bear! It’s amazing how immediately Spielberg’s classic hooked into pop culture, as demonstrated by this 1976 woodland imitator. Only one year later, its tropes were already an acknowledged tributary of narrative language. The remorseless creature with a human capacity for hatred and the noble officer, the grizzled huntmaster and the unorthodox expert, the irresponsible authority and the media frenzy he feeds. None of these were new tropes when Jaws was released, but their fishing-line entanglement has never been undone. It’s never quite as satisfying as it was the first time we were tossed over the Orca’s bow, but Grizzly’s combination of familiarity and sleaze has a creepy uncle appeal.
Home Sweet Home
Dir. Nettie Peña
Oh so bad. There’s some laughs here, but they’re front-loaded into a perfect opening in which a cackling madman kills a drunk, shoots some PCP into his tongue, and runs down a granny. An obnoxious KISS devotee with mime makeup and an electric guitar provides some more color, but the film spends the bulk of its runtime on aimless wandering and near-pitch-black outdoor scenes. A slasher with no atmosphere, no mystery, and apparently no lighting rig: you’re better off imagining your own based on the movie poster.
Let Us Prey
Dir. Brian O’Malley
A decent setup: Satan (or one of his agents) gets hit by a car and brought into a police station, where he exposes the sins of those around him, causing the chaos and bloodshed you’d expect from a bunch of people shown the truth about themselves. Unfortunately, the film pushes its premise too far by revealing multiple serial killers at a pace that would exhaust Dexter. The ending is satisfying and blissfully free of cop-out answers, but it’s still a shame. Had they settled for a smaller plot and subtler characters, this one could’ve been tight as garrote wire.
Nothing But the Night
Dir. Peter Sasdy
A reminder that films aren’t a puzzle to be solved, but a potion to be concocted. This chiller has all the elements that should make for a classic: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and creepy kids creeping around a creepy boarding school on a remote Scottish isle. But the film spends too much time collecting matchbooks and not enough striking flames. Just burn that wicker man down already.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
Dir. Gregory Plotkin
It took five hopeless hacks to gift us with this undisguised remake of Poltergeist, and not one of them ever wished demons on a McMansion? Get thee to a summoning circle, Karswell. Show ‘em how to party.
Scream and Scream Again
Dir. Gordon Hessler
This fevered mix of mad science, Jack the Ripper, perversion, vats of acid, Cold War spycraft, and psychedelic rock is like projecting the psyche of a 13-year old British boy in 1970. Featuring the longest police chase I’ve ever seen, the fugitive equivalent of They Live’s street fight, every scene of this one provokes a gaping “Why?” (and that is absolutely a compliment). Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee class it up, but the key performance belongs to Vincent Price. There’s dignity in his melancholy, obsessive scientist, unable to help himself from showing off his insane work to a colleague and proud of his dream despite its resultant chaos. If he had revealed that he had also directed this movie, you wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Son of Frankenstein
Dir. Rowland V. Lee
Not what you might expect. Despite the greatness of Bela Lugosi’s snarling Ygor and Karloff’s childlike Monster, the film really comes down to the friendship and rivalry between Basil Rathbone’s driven, resentful Baron Frankenstein and Lionel Atwill’s proud, dutiful Inspector Krogh. All four actors are superb, but Krogh is an instant favorite. Despite losing his arm to the Monster when he was a child, he’s much more Porfiry than Ahab, patiently outwitting the younger Frankenstein’s attempts to control and conceal the Monster in a misguided attempt to restore his father’s name. There’s an annoying child, the sets are oddly sparse, and James Whale’s charged atmosphere is missed, but its ambitions are great. A worthy sequel.