Fright Night (1985)

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Yet again, I am a big horror fan and yet, somehow, I have managed to miss seeing the original Fright Night before now. This has been properly rectified, and I am pleased to say that the hype was not misplaced.

Fright Night tells the story of Charley (William Ragsdale), a high school student who decides that he’d rather watch the weird neighbors next door than have sex with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). Although I know that subsequent events were largely out of Charley’s control, there still seems to be a moral in that story: sex first, vampires later. What Charley does see that fateful night are his new neighbors moving a coffin into the basement; this, in addition to the appearance on the TV screen of Fright Night, a late-night spookfest featuring “vampire killer” Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), provokes Charley to believe that his neighbor might be a vampire. This is later confirmed by the arrival and subsequent disappearance of a prostitute, whom Charlie sees going into the house. When the prostitute later winds up dead, Charley’s suspicions are confirmed. Consulting his friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), Charley learns about the best way to fight against vampires – but not before his mother has invited the offending creature into the house. And no wonder! Our vampire is dashing Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), by whom most of us would not object to being bitten. Will sexy vampire triumph over horny teenager? We’ll just have to wait and see!

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Fright Night makes excellent use of the vampire mythos we all know so well – and anyone who has ever watched a vampire movie, from Dracula to Dracula Untold, will recognize certain important rules that are made, subverted, and at times even broken. The film melds tradition with a unique story, as the vampire moves in next door and heads to dance clubs. Dandridge is a charming but wholly unsympathetic villain, avoiding at every turn the pitfalls of modern vampires that are just “misunderstood.” He’s not misunderstood – he’s an evil lord of the undead, taking sadistic pleasure in torturing Charley (whom no one will believe) and seducing fair young maidens. While I cannot avoid thinking of Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride, he makes a credible vampire.

Roddy McDowall is the other major force at work here, channeling everyone from Peter Cushing to Vincent Price (Peter Vincent, anyone?), with a smattering of Elvira. He’s an actor playing a vampire killer, now faced with an actual vampire – and when he finally gets into the swing of things, it’s a pleasure to watch. The other actors in the group are a cut below McDowall’s hamming, the most obnoxious being Evil, who shouts and giggles like a demented Renfield to no apparent purpose. Charley and Amy are likably bland, as are most heroes and heroines in vampire stories.

My sole objection to Fright Night is a reveal nearing the end, where a rule hitherto established and accepted is bent and then broken with little to no explanation. Vampire movies depend upon their rules: if your vampire is repelled by crucifixes but not by garlic, can’t cast a reflection in glass but can in water, all well and good. But you don’t introduce a new and non-traditional rule at the eleventh hour and then fail to explain it. That’s just bad form.

But for that single caveat, Fright Night is a glorious love letter to the vampire genre and a classic in its own right. There are no sparkly vegetarian vamps here: these guys are strictly carnivores.

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

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If humanity were to suddenly be subject to an airborne disease that turns its victims into the walking dead, who do you think would be the last man standing? No, not those idiots on The Walking Dead. Only one man could possibly survive the zombie/vampire apocalypse, and look good doing it too: Vincent Price.

Based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth stars our Mr. Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a biologist who has spent three years as the only man on Earth apparently not infected by a horrific airborne plague that claimed his wife, daughter, and best friend. The film takes us through Morgan’s typical day as he awakes, hangs garlic over his doorway, and heads out into the abandoned city with a bag of wooden stakes to find and destroy more of the vampiric creatures that were once the human population. He has to return before the sun goes down, though, for the vampires come banging on his door, threatening to kill him. He spends some time trying to get into radio contact with other living beings, but all to no avail. It appears that he truly is the only man left alive.

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The Last Man on Earth reportedly inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead, so all you Zombie-philes should get down on your knees and praise this weird little movie. This is a zombie movie before there were zombie movies, but the vampiric creatures share much in common with Romero’s later conception of the walking dead. Half brain-dead and only really powerful in numbers, the vampires seem to lack basic organization, banging on Morgan’s door and shouting threats without being able to organize themselves well enough to actually break into his house. Morgan’s contempt for the people that were once his friends is pathetic. In a flashback sequence, we learn of the origins of the plague, and of the slow decay of surrounding civilization as more people fall victim. When Morgan wanders the deserted city in search of vampires, the film provides an effective sense of the desolation and loneliness of streets without people and stores left empty. There is something horribly realistic in the first 3/4s of this tale of worldwide pandemic, the terror and mistrust perhaps all too real in this day and age.

Price gives one of his most affecting performances, at once sympathetic and slightly sinister as he struggles with his day-to-day existence, forced to burn the mutilated bodies of the vampires. He’s the only character on screen for most of the film’s runtime. Despite the somewhat hokey voiceover that was far too common in films of this period, Price’s performance elevates the film (as his performances so often did) – his elation at spotting a dog running loose in the streets is heartbreaking, for here he sees at last some hope of companionship in his long, lonely existence. Morgan is a monster and a hero in the same breath, and his suffering plays out over the contortions of Price’s remarkably expressive face.

The weakness of The Last Man on Earth lies in its denouement, which I won’t spoil for the reader. A relatively effective set-up is punctured in the final act, leading to a curiously unsatisfying conclusion. While miles ahead of its successor I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, The Last Man on Earth does not quite make good on its narrative promises.

Yet for all that, there is much to like about this odd little film. Price here embraces the melancholic suffering so prevalent in many of his best performances. He has taken the world’s cares on his shoulders, and become a monster in the process. Nothing could be so heart-breaking.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

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Sure we all make fun of Universal’s weird attempt at creating a new franchise “universe” to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe (God, I really fucking hate that phrase) and the DC Cinematic Universe. But you know what? Universal actually did have the original multi-film, multi-character, multi-storyline world. It started way back in the 1930s with the rapid-fire release of Universal’s original monster trilogy: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. Many years later, The Wolf Man was added to mix, along with some of the “little brothers” of those historic monsters, including The Invisible Man and the subject of this little review: Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As the opening voiceover informs us, evolution has taken some interesting twists and turns, beginning deep in the ocean and proceeding onto land, as human beings eventually emerged from the primordial ooze. But there might still be things out there that defy evolutionary theory, and it is in the depths of the Amazonian jungle we might find them. The film proper begins with Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovering a fossilized hand in a rock formation somewhere deep in the Amazon. The hand looks almost human, save for webbed fingers and claws, and Maia thinks he may have stumbled upon a missing link – a, uh, missing fish-link, in point of fact. Leaving his native guides to guard the camp, Maia returns to civilization to show off his new find and possibly get together an archaeological team to dig up the rest of the skeleton. He gets his team in the form of ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), his boss Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), and their “colleague” Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) (I could not quite figure out what it was that Kay did, other than go swimming and scream, but she’s supposed to be a scientist-type of some kind). The team head off down the Amazon aboard a fishing boat run by Lucas (Nestor Paiva).

When the group arrives at camp, they discover that it has been destroyed and the two guides killed. Being brave scientists, they carry on with the excavation, only to have it be a bust: the skeleton is nowhere to be found. On a hunch, they travel further down the river to the Black Lagoon to see if they can find pieces of the skeleton there. That’s how they meet the Creature, an amphibious humanoid who just wants to have a pleasant swim, but instead nearly gets harpooned in his first contact with his distant cousins.

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Like many films of the same period, Creature from the Black Lagoon suffers from an overabundance of exposition, as our scientists explain what we’re supposed to feel as we feel it.  As with Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man, the Creature’s animalistic nature is far more sympathetic than his human counterparts. He has had his Lagoon invaded and been shot several times, prompting a predictable violent reaction. One wonders just want these scientists want with shooting harpoons at a species that they’re supposed to be studying. Even the conflict between David and Mark over how best to go about dealing with the Creature is just about one form of invasion over another: David desires to poke, prod, and study the Creature, while Mark just wants to hang its head over his mantlepiece.

To its credit, Creature from the Black Lagoon features some truly remarkable underwater photography. The Creature’s movements are beautifully performed and detailed – his natural habitat is the water and he understands and moves with it far more fluidly than the divers outfitted with oxygen tanks and goggles. Out of the water, the Creature looks like a big, walking fish – the use of prosthetics remarkable for the period, and still oddly convincing even now.

While far from a great film, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a rightfully iconic one, an interesting variation on the horror stories of radioactive lizards that were cinema’s response to the Atomic Age. Rather than being created out of modern violence, the Creature comes from an evolutionary past, a connection between the human past and the future. That the response is to shoot and flee from it perhaps says more about humanity than the film ever thought to.

The Charmers (Episode 03-23).

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The Charmers bears the distinction of being one of a handful of Season 2 and 3 episodes to be remade – with mixed results – in the Emma Peel era. In this case, it’s a toss-up as to which version of the story is more successful, for there were several very fundamental changes made when The Charmers became The Correct Way to Kill.

In this iteration, Steed and Cathy have their domestic bliss invaded when Martin (John Barcroft), a Soviet agent, bursts in at Steed’s door waving a gun and accusing the British agent of killing a Soviet operative. Steed denies knowledge of the death, claiming that the Ministry thought that the “opposition” were doing a bit of housecleaning. It soon becomes clear that both sides are innocent of the murder, which means that a third party has been attempting to drive a rift between them. Steed goes to see Keller (Warren Mitchell, in his pre-Brodny manifestation), his “opposite number” on the other side, to propose a brief truce until they can get to the bottom of the killings. Keller suggests that they make a gesture of good faith: he will send an agent to assist Steed, and Steed will offer up a partner for Martin. So it is that Cathy, much to her chagrin, winds up as Martin’s partner, while Steed receives the services of “Agent” Kim Lawrence (Fenella Fielding). Unfortunately, Kim is actually an actress who thinks that Steed is a “Method” writer at work on a spy novel.

The convolutions of plot aside, this one is played for comedy, from Cathy’s fury at being “sold” to the other side, to Kim and Steed’s humorous misunderstandings as she talks about her life on the stage and he thinks she’s talking about her life as an agent. There are some very funny scenes in a shop as Steed insists on a tie for a “Totterers” Club, and some equally funny repartee between Cathy and Martin, who has quite a crush on the female agent. Unfortunately, the episode begins to fragment just a bit nearing the end, as the limitations of staging an elaborate fight scene on live television begin to tell. Splitting up our team for a large portion of the runtime also means that we don’t get much Steed/Cathy banter, but that might be forgivable in light of the very enjoyable opening scenes.

The Charmers is an episode that bears repeat viewings, if just to catch some of the fast dialogue between Kim (who becomes less annoying as time goes on) and a very confused Steed. While I give a slight edge to some of the changes made in The Correct Way to Kill, The Charmers is still very…charming.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

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Leave it to horror master John Carpenter to make a film that is part loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft, part parodic social commentary, and part meta-narrational horror. Seriously. While Wes Craven would attempt a similarly themed narrative with his own meta-horror Scream, Carpenter arguably accomplished something weirder, more genre-defying, and more gleefully enjoyable than anything starring Neve Campbell.

Sam Neill is John Trent, an insurance investigator who starts the film being locked in an asylum as he raves about the end of the world. Interviewed by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), Trent recounts his story. He was hired by a publishing house (run by Charlton Heston, no less) to find the author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror writer whose latest novel In the Mouth of Madness promises to be a ground-breaking work of horror fiction. Accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda (Julie Carmen), Trent embarks on a journey to find Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional town in New Hampshire where Cane may or may not have disappeared.

Anyone who has read Lovecraft will immediately recognize certain knowing nods and references, from the asylum opening to “Pickman’s Hotel,” from the titles of Sutter Cane’s novel to certain – ahem – old ones. Still, In the Mouth of Madness is by no means strictly for the fans. The story encompasses what it means to love horror, and to indulge in its dark plots of madness and apocalypse. It does this with a strong parodic edge, aware of itself even as it indulges the grotesque and the dark, serious underpinnings of fear. Cane’s novels supposedly drive “susceptible” readers to near frenzy, and Trent is a perfect candidate – a man who doesn’t believe in such things, yet stays up to all hours reading the books. Is the entire story a product of Trent’s madness (remember: he’s telling this from within an insane asylum), or has Cane’s work opened a facet of the human mind and the universe better left closed? As the film develops, layers of fictional and nonfictional worlds begin to overlap, and Trent’s experiences become more and more convoluted.

Neill is an excellent protagonist here: not quite likable, but not inherently unlikable either. Carmen has less to do, and actually gives the impression of being a bit more gone on Cane than she should be. But as with many horror films, the people are really just there to be enacted upon – the real star is horror, and how the film unravels that horror. Making a movie with a Lovecraftian setting is a difficult venture; Lovecraft’s horror usually lies in the unseen and the barely glimpsed. Carpenter manages it, though, giving us just enough fear beyond the realm of conscious thought, interspersed with ghoulish body horror. It’s an effective approximation of Lovecraft’s prose, and a powerful cinematic technique in its own right.

In the Mouth of Madness is like a fever dream, starting out with a certain element of realism and quickly descending into the realms of, well, madness. The conclusion is both chilling and just a little funny, its terror punctuated by a low-level of humor that brings out that fine line between the terrifying and the ridiculous. Carpenter has done right by Lovecraft, and that’s a feat unto itself.

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Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

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Horror has a long and  hallowed tradition of anthology films. Some, like Corman’s Tales of Terror, are tied together by a common writer and repeated appearances of actors as different characters; others, like the recent V/H/S, by a common gimmick or concept. Then there’s Trick ‘r Treat, which utilizes the anthology film subgenre to tell a series of tales from Halloween night and, like a schlock-horror version of Pulp Fiction, interweaves characters to effortless, and surprising, effects.

The action takes place one Halloween night in a small Ohio town that really seems to like the holiday. The usual Halloween shenanigans are afoot, from kids knocking pumpkins off of fence-posts, to grown-ups using costumes as a means of anonymously getting off with strangers. The four main tales comprise a school principal who moonlights as a serial killer, a group of kids paying homage to an old urban legend, a young woman dressed as Red Riding Hood on the search for her Big Bad Wolf, and a curmudgeonly old man who hates Halloween and won’t give out candy. Each story comprises contains a “Halloween infraction,” from poisoned candy to cruel practical jokes, and the presence of “Sam,” a little trick-r-treater wearing orange pajamas and a burlap sack mask who appears at important moments in each vignette. The characters connect and interweave with one another, as one story finishes what another started.

Without giving too much away, Trick ‘r Treat is one of the most entertaining contemporary horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It has its own, warped moral universe that brings each portion of the story to an intense, often funny, and always satisfying conclusion. With an excellent cast full of character actors, including Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, the film brings off its horror without too much recourse to shock tactics or bloody dismemberment. It trades on what makes Halloween so beloved: beneath the jack-o-lanterns and cute costumes is a holiday tradition founded on respect for the dead and the supernatural. Cross the line of tradition, break the rules for your own perversity, and little Sam will be there to punish your wrongdoing. A good lesson, for any Halloween night.

The Birds (1963)

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While this is the subject of some debate, it is my conviction that Alfred Hitchcock made only one “proper” horror film over the course of his long career. Psycho has often been cited as the first “slasher” film, but I don’t think it’s insane to argue that Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds wins the award for inarguable horror.

Tippi Hedren is Melanie Daniels, an apparently frivolous young ingenue who meets and flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco bird shop. Annoyed by Mitch’s teasing flirtation, Melanie purchases a set of lovebirds and heads to Mitch’s country home in Bodega Bay, to deliver the birds to his little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) for her birthday. There she meets the schoolteacher Annie Hayward (Suzanne Pleshette), and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), both major feminine forces in Mitch’s life.  The whole thing is really just an elaborate gag intended to pay Mitch back for his teasing, but things begin to get scary when Melanie is attacked by a seagull. It’s the harbinger of things to come, as the local birds begin attacking and killing humans. The inhabitants of Bodega Bay are eventually forced to hole up in their homes, securing themselves against the constant and apparently purposeless onslaught of avian forces.

Hitchcock spends the first half hour of The Birds establishing the characters, their relationships, and the tensions already underlying Melanie’s interaction with the Brenner family. Mitch’s mother in particular seems to suspect and dislike Melanie, but in an extended conversation with Annie, Melanie learns that it is not as cut and dry as, say, a grasping and jealous woman (words that immediately call to mind Psycho, of three years before). The tensions are more complex, and in some ways more realistic, than that. When the bird attacks do begin, the viewer senses some tenuous and wholly inexplicable connection between the motiveless violence, and the animosities between our human characters. How to define this becomes the question, and the film poses no easy answers.

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Much of The Birds is about human reaction to purposeless violence. While certain things are established about the attacks – they come in waves, they stop for long intervals, they appear to be concerted attacks by large numbers of animals – there is no apparent purpose behind them. The birds have simply “gone mad,” but it is a universal madness affecting all of them – except for the two lovebirds in a cage. The violence is overwhelming and disturbing, but it is the mad tension, the waiting for something to happen, that truly gives the film its energy. As one ornithologist explains, if birds of a feather truly do flock together, there’s nothing human beings can do to stop them.

For a film made in 1963, the special effects in The Birds hold up rather well. Hitchcock’s camera never lingers for too long on a single animal, making it easier to combine real trained birds with puppets, animation, and even back projection to form a largely seamless horror story. I wish the same could be said for the performances. Although Tippi Hedren’s performance is affecting, she has an aloofness and distance that after awhile becomes grating and makes it difficult for the viewer to sympathize. The same must be said for Rod Taylor’s rather self-satisfied lawyer, who has as much sex appeal as a store mannequin. The strong secondary characters, however, make up for the moments when the leads drag down the dialogue – and Jessica Tandy’s multi-faceted job as Lydia Brenner is a study in restrained acting.

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But the real stars here are the birds, and they’re really the ones we came to see. This is more than a “nature gone mad” story, so popular in the 1950s and 60s in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of the Atomic Age. The birds are not really mad, it seems. They know exactly what they’re doing, and that, more than anything human, is terrifying.