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.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

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Every October I try to load my Netflix queue with horror films both old and new, focusing as much as possible on the horror classics I have not seen. While there are a few necessary staples of this holiday season (Young Frankenstein, Sleepy Hollow, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Hocus Pocus), I am always on the lookout for those movies that have somehow slipped through my horror-loving finger. One of these films is the original The Amityville Horror, a haunted house movie from 1979 that spawned a host of sequels and remakes, one of which (according to Wikipedia) will be coming in 2015.

Based on a supposedly true story, The Amityville Horror focuses on the Lutz family, who move into a sinister house where a disturbing mass murder was committed the year before. The price is right, though (isn’t it always?), and so the Lutzes ignore the house’s history and set about unpacking their boxes. Things begin to get very weird, very quickly, which is what we can expect from a house with eye-like windows. When the parish priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) arrives to bless the house, he’s swarmed with flies and hears a disembodied voice demanding that he depart. Escaping from the house, he’s later unable to call Kathy Lutz (Margo Kidder) to warn her of the horrors. Not that she should really need any warning: her husband George (James Brolin) is compulsively chopping wood and sharpening his axe, her daughter Amy (Natasha Ryan) has discovered an “imaginary friend” named Jody who never wants them to leave, and anyone of a Catholic or spiritual bent gets violently ill just from approaching the house. But as with most haunted house movies, it takes a long time for the inhabitants to realize just how evil their habitation has become.

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The Amityville Horror boasts of strong production values and scares that depend more on a slow building of tension and practical effects than on blood and gore. There’s very little violence; just bumps, screeches, and a sense of sickness and foreboding that seems just out of reach. When violent things do happen, they are the terrors of a household accident: a window falling on a boy’s hand, a tumble down the stairs, a lightbulb shorting out, and doors banging, or being blown off their hinges.

The Amityville Horror falls short of true greatness, however, largely due to its lack of exposition. The reasons behind the haunting (if haunting it is) remain obscure, with a throwaway scene providing the only explanation for what has hitherto been inexplicable. I would not object to the lack of exposition if the rules of the house were clearer. Whatever evil dwells there seems to have a long reach, able to effect people who come in contact with it from a distance. But the added presences of “Jody” – either a ghost, a spirit, or a manifestation of the house? – along with the apparently random behavior of the house in slamming doors and windows, and possessing people, makes it difficult to establish just what we’re supposed to expect or be frightened of. While individual scenes have punch, the film as a whole lacks direction and, as a result, tension. I am willing to accept that the house is just evil, but even evil (in film at least) has to have some rules to maintain a strong narrative through-line.

The lack of exposition might have been mitigated by a stronger development of character. The psychology of the Lutzes remains largely obscure – the two sons vanish for large sections of the film, while the daughter and her friendship with Jody remain unresolved. George and Kathy, whom the house affects the most, are not drawn out as characters. While there are shades of The Shining in George’s slow descent into madness, his awareness of the house’s evil seems to shift on a scene by scene basis. Following several harrowing events, it strains credulity to believe that this family would stay on in the house.

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While The Amityville Horror has its faults, it is still an effective B-grade horror film. You can see its influence in later films like The Shining, Poltergeist, and Paranormal Activity – and while those films were arguably better executions of the same concept, the origins can be found in Amityville. That in itself makes this one worth watching.

The Wringer (Episode 03-17, January 1964).

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The Wringer is arguably one of the best dramatic episodes of The Avengers; it’s certainly the most serious. Steed is sent in pursuit of fellow agent and old friend Hal Anderson (Peter Sallis), one of seven agents who went missing after being detailed to the Corinthian Pipeline, an agent escape route in Austria. The others are all dead or captured, but Anderson remains at large and has not checked back in with his Ministry superiors. As is usual, Steed goes off on his own and eventually locates Anderson in a lookout post in the Highlands. But something is wrong: Anderson has forgotten the last two months of his life. Then he remembers, or appears to, and accuses Steed of being a traitor, the man responsible for selling out details on the Pipeline and causing the deaths of the other agents. Found guilty, Steed is sent to “The Unit” for interrogation and eventual disposal.

The Wringer achieves a complexity that not many episodes of The Avengers can boast about. The plot is complex without feeling weighted or overcomplicated. While some elements are introduced within the last ten or fifteen minutes, the whole moves along at a good pace, never rushed. The tension – and there’s a lot of it – is underscored by the relative calm surrounding the events. Steed does not yell, fight, or bluster when he’s accused of treachery, which makes moments of violence (as when he smashes a lunch tray) all the more powerful. We are watching our hero come apart at the seams, but he does it gradually, a testament to the strength of the character and to Macnee’s acting.

Cathy never loses faith in Steed, arguing with his superiors until they agree to allow her to see her partner. She represents it as wanting to know if she was wrong about the man she’s worked with for “many months,” but the subterfuge of cold intellectual interest is belied both by her concern and the look on her face the moment she sees him. She’s far from detached, as emotionally invested as Steed.

If The Wringer has any flaws, it is in the lack of humor. Seldom has there been a more somber episode, with even the opening scenes weighted down by Steed’s preoccupation with his assignment. The Ministry officials are both incompetent and unlikable figures, the villains (when we find them) creepy and self-involved. But the stars here are Steed and Cathy, their relationship and their reliance on each other in spite of everything that can be done to sever them. For once we are given insight into the psychological and emotional lives of these characters. While I’m glad that not all Avengers episodes are quite this intense, I’m pleased this one exists.

 

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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I am a sucker for old dark house stories; the older and darker, the better. These stories were clichéd from practically the moment they were created, but like many clichés, they have a sense of fun to them that few more original narratives manage to approximate. One of the earliest such narratives – on film at least – is The Cat and the Canary, a silent film from director Paul Leni, one of the oft-forgotten masters of German Expressionism.

The film opens with the slow madness and then death of millionaire Cyrus West, who inhabits a multi-turreted Gothic mansion somewhere in the bleak and inaccessible countryside. The intertitles inform us that West was slowly driven mad by his grasping, greedy relatives, as they gathered around him like “cats around a canary.” So West decides to pay them back for their avarice, writing a will to remain locked in a safe until the 20th anniversary of his death, when his lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) will open it and announce his heir.

Fast forward those twenty years to one dark and stormy night. The relatives gather for the reading of the will at the Gothic mansion, still presided over by Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), a leering and creepy old housekeeper if ever there was one. When Lawyer Crosby arrives to open the safe, he discovers not one but two wills, with instructions to open the second if the first is not fulfilled. He’s more disturbed by the presence of a moth, indicating that someone has opened the safe in the past twenty years. Then the relatives arrive: Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor), and finally Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). As the family gather round for the midnight reading of the will, the clock strikes for the first time in twenty years and thunder shakes the house.

The heir, of course, turns out to be Annabelle West, the only member of the family who still bears the West surname. Her relatives are predictably disappointed, but things get interesting when Crosby raises a caveat to the will. The heir must be proved to be of sound mind by a doctor arriving that night; if she’s insane, then the fortune passes to the person mentioned in the second will. So with the set-up for potential murder and madness in place, everyone heads off to dinner.

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The Cat and the Canary is a surprising film for a number of reasons. Its highly Expressionist opening and rather clichéd structure make it appear like a quintessential early horror film. When a guard from an asylum turns up to warn the house’s inhabitants of a lunatic in the neighborhood – one who “tears his victims apart, like a cat with a canary” – we are solidly in the archetypal realm. Even the characters are less characters and more types: the ingenue, the maiden aunt, the dashing hero, the coward, and the creepy housekeeper. But as the film goes on, the types will be gradually played with and subverted, their roles thrown into relief as the night brings out the madness in them all.

The film manages to hit all the buttons that we might expect from an “old dark house”: a possible ghost, a hidden treasure, a fair maiden in danger, secret passages, vanishing corpses, and a dark and stormy night. It then injects a healthy dose of humor into the mix: cousin Paul is a coward of the first order, diving under tables, and at one point secreting himself beneath Cecily’s bed, where he unfortunately witnesses Aunt Susan and Cecily getting undressed (Wikipedia claims that the pair are mother and daughter, however I always thought that Cecily was just another cousin). As the night drags on and creepy things continue to happen, the extreme reactions of some of the family members provide more humor than fear.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some seriously scary moments in The Cat and the Canary. With the disappearance of Crosby, Annabelle’s sanity comes into question – and only the audience has seen the vague, shadowy figure ducking into secret passageways. It’s amazing what can be done with a long-nailed hand coming out of a wall, or a bizarre shape creeping past a window, made all the more bizarre due to lack of ambient sound.cat-and-canary-1927-imagery

While not exactly a film to provide jump scares or raise your heart-rate, The Cat and the Canary is curiously haunting. It will be remade two more times, once in 1939 and then again 1978, but the silent one is really the best, combining humor and horror, strong practical effects and Expressionist sets. The scares are still there, almost a hundred years later. It’s hard not to shiver when that hand comes out of the wall.