October 29, 2013

24 Hours Of Halloween Horror Part I: Zombies And Slashers and Universal Classics


I’m a bit of a crazy person.

My friends Jason and Lucy loooooove Halloween and, more specifically, Halloween movies.  Every year they host a movie marathon full of all sorts of crazy shit and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since they first put the bug in my ear a few months ago.  They set the date for the Saturday before Halloween, scheduling 12 hours of non-stop horror from noon to midnight.  The only hitch was that I had already planned on attending the Coolidge's 13th Annual Halloween Marathon, taking place immediately thereafter from midnight to noon.  For most people this would present an insurmountable problem, forcing them to choose one marathon over the other.


I just said fuck it and went to both.

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I arrived at Jason and Lucy's apartment in Somerville just before noon.  I was the first one there, but they had clearly been prepping the place for quite some time.  The living room was packed with enough comfy chairs, pillows and blankets to seat about 15 people with nary a bad seat in the house.  I snagged myself a prime spot on the couch and settled in while loads of bizarre horror trailers looped on the TV and Halloween music drifted out of the speakers.  Jason hung sheets to black out the windows while Lucy literally cranked up their Whirley Pop and filled two big bowls with perfectly seasoned popcorn.  Throw in the two jack-o-lantern buckets stuffed with candy (one chocolate, one fruity), the refrigerator full of beers and the impending pizza delivery, it quickly became clear that I'd be taking a break from conscientious eating.*  It was also clear that this was gonna be a good day.

Let the madness begin!

Zombie Flesh Eaters, a.k.a. Zombie, a.k.a. Zombi 2 (1979)

Yes, that's right.  That's a zombie fighting a shark.

We started the day with Lucio Fucli's undead masterpiece Zombie Flesh Eaters, originally sold in Italy as an unofficial sequel to Romero's Dawn Of The Dead.  The story centers on a reporter and a woman who travel to a tropical island in search of her father after the old man's boat arrives in New York Harbor with only a single zombie on board.  They track down a British doctor who's been doing experiments and studying the locals, many of whom seem to be rising from the grave to attack the living.  Soon it's a race to evade the zombie hordes and get off the island alive.

A perfect way to kick things off.  After the initial zombie attack the story is a bit slow to get started, but really Fulci's just lulling you into a false sense of security.  The second half of the film is full of some really fantastic zombie attacks, including the infamous one above in which an underwater zombie fights off an actual shark.  (The zombie is actually the shark trainer in heavy makeup.)  There's also a really fantastic scene in which the doctor's wife gets a pretty serious splinter to the face.  It's incredibly cool that Fulci is able to use Romero's modern zombie sensibility while also bringing it all back to island voodoo, the proper birthplace of zombies.  The last thirty minutes is chock full of that really awesome Italian gore, with latex skin and gurgling red paint galore.  And, like so many Italian films of that era, the cast is made up of both English and Italian speaking actors, all of whom speak their own native language with no sound recorded on set.  That means every line of dialogue is done in post, so sometimes it feels like you're watching a dubbed foreign film and sometimes it just feels like you're watching an American film made up entirely of shitty ADR.  There's an inherently comical element to the disconnect between what you're seeing and what you're hearing; combine that with some really well staged zombie attacks (I'm particularly fond of the conquistador graveyard) and the first rate make-up and practical effects, and you've got an absolute classic with a seriously killer ending.

The Mummy (1932)

I was feeling guilty about going through an entire month of horror films without ever getting around to any of the Universal Classic Monsters, something I planned on doing way back in week two.  I felt so bad that I even forced myself to purchase the Blu-ray boxed set of beautiful new restorations when Amazon had it listed at over 50% off last week.  Thankfully, Jason makes it a point to watch at least one Universal Monster movie every October and this year he settled on The Mummy starring Boris Karloff in the title role.  He brings a remarkable sense of quiet menace to Imhotep, who only appears as the traditional cloth-wrapped corpse in the film's opening scene.  He's quickly revived and escapes into the desert, at which point the film jumps forward ten years and Karloff spends the rest of the film posing as a wrinkled contemporary Egyptian.  My understanding is that the incongruity between the general public's perception of these characters and their actual early execution is a running theme throughout these films.

Technically this is considered the source material for the Stephen Sommers franchise starring Brendan Fraser, but there aren't a whole lot of similarities.  Arnold Vosloo's character is also named Imhotep and the plot still centers around his attempt to reincarnate an ancient Egyptian princess in the body of a modern day beauty, but everything else is radically different.  Sommers' film is a rollicking adventure tale, with Fraser as the wannabe Indiana Jones, but Karl Freund's original is an exotic supernatural mystery that's far darker in tone.  Each have their own time and place I suppose.  The restoration here is so good that I'm really excited to delve into my shiny new boxed set even further.  Maybe I can knock out one movie a week or something.

Karloff has a weird line about how he doesn't like to be touched because of his "Eastern prejudice."  That phrase would become a running joke throughout the day.

Bud Abbot And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another great introduction to the Universal Classics.  About fifteen minutes into this movie I realized that not only was it the first time I was seeing Bella Lugosi's Dracula or Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman, but it was also the first time I was seeing Abbott and Costello doing something other than arguing about baseball.  We do miss out on Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster, but it doesn't feel like a huge loss because the character is barely present in the movie.  There's a pretty remarkable blending of tones here: Abbot and Costello are as funny as ever, but Lugosi and Chaney are playing their famous characters pretty straight, resisting the urge to really ham it up or mock themselves to keep up with the comedians.  Everyone's just sort of doing their own thing and having a ball doing it and somehow it all just falls into place.  There's a whole lot of Costello encountering the monsters while Abbott is out of the room and while that might sound tiring on paper, watching the two of them argue is so entertaining that I not only didn't mind the contrivance, I actually wanted it to last the whole movie, for Abbott to NEVER see the monsters and remain convinced that Costello was just imagining things the whole time.

There's a whole running gag about two beautiful women named Sandra and Joan who are seemingly infatuated with Costello while Abbott keeps trying to convince his friend to "let him have one," talking about the women like they were cheeseburgers.  It's easy to write this behavior off as just an unfortunate relic of a bygone era, but I actually think the film is smarter than that.  Neither of the women is actually interested in Costello and they're both playing him to serve a greater agenda - Sandra wants to steal his brain to put in Frankenstein's Monster and Joan is an undercover insurance investigator who suspects the duo of theft.  The men's misogyny is thus undermined by two women who are both smart and capable and they make Abbott and Costello look like even bigger fools for trying to trade them like a pack of gum.  In reality both Sandra and Joan have the ability to completely destroy these men in very different ways, and Abbott and Costello have absolutely no idea what's really going on.  It's actually a fairly clever subplot that feels sharply ahead of its time.

Also, the hand drawn animations whenever Dracula turns into a bat totally rule.

Re-Animator (1985)

This is another flick I've been meaning to watch for years, despite knowing almost nothing about it other than that it stars Jeffrey Combs (familiar to me from his numerous roles on the various Star Treks) as a scientist who can bring back the dead thanks to a syringe full of some glowing green stuff.  That's actually the only thing you really need to know, as the movie isn't really concerned with exploring the characters with any kind of depth or even explaining exactly what's in the mystery reagent and how Dr. Herbert West managed to get his hands on it.  All that really matters is that West has got a duffel bag full of the stuff and he's willing to use it.  Director Stuart Gordon knows exactly what kind of movie he's making and he powers through all the perfunctory plot stuff in order to linger on violent reanimated corpses and insanely great visuals that will make you laugh and scream simultaneously.

West is a perfect mad scientist, singularly focused and unconcerned with trivialities like politeness or, you know, morality of any kind.  All that matters to him is results and if that means being a tremendous dickhead  or killing your cat ("Details later.") then so be it.  Generally you'd expect an upright, idealistic hero to counterbalance a character like West, but his nice guy roommate Dan is such a boring pushover that he practically blends into the background.  Bruce Abbott can't hold his own with anyone in a scene, including Mace the security guard and his copy of Boudoir magazine.  (That's not a gramatical error.  The guy gets upstaged by a magazine.)  Barbara Crampton, who was lovely in the recent You're Next, acquits herself well as Dan's girlfriend Meg, even if her character is often left with little to do other than scream at the madness all around her.  But neither of these characters ever properly take charge of the situation and assert themselves.  Instead they just get sort of sucked into West's insanity and hold on for the ride.  The only other character that really steps up is Dr. Hill, the supremely creepy teacher who wants to bang Meg and steal West's potion for his own fame and fortune.  Hill's an outright villain - if he had a mustache, he'd spend half the movie twirling it - so by the time we get to the film's conclusion, in which Hill creates an army of reanimated and lobotomized corpses to do his bidding, (it's awesome) Herbert West practically becomes the fucking hero by default!  It's a hell of a turnaround and a great subversion of the classic and anticipated plot structure for this kind of movie.  Instead of Dan and/or Meg growing a spine and standing up to West, the movie simply introduces an even BIGGER asshole scientist so that West looks practically altruistic by comparison.

I'm tiptoeing around the finale a bit because there's some stuff in there that's absurd, great and just absurdly great and I was grateful to not know it was coming in advance.  Re-Animator is currently streaming on Netflix.  Watch it with friends and beers.

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas was released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the two films pretty much gave birth to the modern slasher genre.  But whereas Leatherface begat killers like Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, Black Christmas is the direct forebearer of the more grounded, domestic killing sprees of films like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, When A Stranger Calls or Prom Night, where it's less about the actual killer and more about executing the concept.  Here we've got a sorority house full of attractive young girls who are preparing to leave school for Christmas break.  An unseen killer, presented entirely through first person POV (You're welcome Friday The 13th!) sneaks into the house and starts to slowly pick the girls off one by one while simultaneously calling the house and screaming almost indecipherable obscenities over the phone.  Nobody is the wiser until the first victim's father arrives to bring her home and she's nowhere to be found.  The largely inept local police, led by John Saxon (who would later play Nancy's father in A Nightmare On Elm Street) finally start to take notice when a little girl is found murdered in the park nearby.  They put a tap on the sorority's phone and we get some great scenes of the phone company guy literally running up and down corridors trying to find what physical switch the call is coming from, leading to the infamous and destined to be co-opted line, "The calls are coming from inside the house!"

It's a great cast, including Olivia Hussey,  a wonderfully boozy Margot Kidder, a big-haired Andrea Martin (who would appear in the 2008 remake) and Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac, the well-meaning house mother who's constantly sneaking shots of straight sherry from a collection of bottles hidden all over the house.  And while none of the kills are particularly gruesome, they are all pretty varied and fun.  We get suffocation by plastic bag, a pulley hook to the face and a stabbing with a crystal unicorn head among others.  But otherwise it's not a terribly flashy movie.  If you didn't know that Black Christmas was the film that influenced generations of horror filmmakers, you'd be tempted to write it off as just another movie about a psycho killing a herd of young hotties.  What sets it apart is that it got there first and set the bar for everyone that followed.  That and the film's ending, a really ballsy decision that not only have I never seen copied before, but one that provoked a perfect reaction from our assembled ranks.  Black Christmas is the one that started it all and it's just as great today as it ever was.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

HOLY.  FUCK.

This movie was so insanely great that I simply cannot contain myself.  The fact that it does not exist on Blu-ray and the DVD looks to be out of print is downright criminal.

While I had heard the title before, I knew absolutely nothing about this movie going into it and trust me, that's the ideal situation.  In fact, I really hesitate to say anything at all about the movie and would rather just implore you to pull it straight to the top of your Netflix queue.  (Sadly it's not streaming on Netflix, although a few of the surely disappointing sequels are.  UPDATE: Jason rightly pointed out that the whole movie is available in HD on fucking YouTube of all places.  But seriously, plug your laptop into your TV.  It's worth it.)  The basic premise is obvious from the title: a series of brutal murders take place at a sleepaway camp and the killer's identity remains a mystery.  There is SOOO much more going on though and delving into really any detail would be a massive disservice.  Yeah, it feels silly to contort myself like this to avoid spoilers for a 30 year old movie, but Sleepaway Camp is very much a cult title and I'd rather use this as a platform to convince you to check this thing out for yourself, especially if you're a fan of seriously fucked up movies.  The film's final freeze frame is one of the most disturbing images I've ever seen in a movie and it's little wonder that it remains on screen throughout and even after the credits roll.  If any of that sounds appealing, stop reading now and just watch it.  You can thank me later.

Still here?  Okay, I will say this much: the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that Sleepaway Camp is one of the most brilliantly executed stylistic fake outs I've ever seen.  Especially watching the film today, you get so wrapped up in all the hilarious 80's fashion (some of the shortest shorts I've ever seen) and some really over the top performances in the supporting roles that you're quickly convinced you're just watching a bad movie.  But a lot of those weird performances and confusing story choices are really just a smokescreen that serve to keep you off balance and set up a finale that will absolutely knock you sideways.  Sleepaway Camp is a dark shard of psychological horror masquerading as low budget cheese.  It's like if you started out watching Troll 2 and at the end it had suddenly turned into Seven.

You must watch this movie.

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After Sleepaway Camp it was a little after 11:00 PM, which gave me just enough time to make my way over to the Coolidge before the festivities kicked off there.  I was missing out on Game 3 of the World Series, so I listened to the local radio broadcast on my way across town.  When I pulled up in front of the theater the Sox had tied the game up for the second time, but by the start of the first movie St Louis had won on a controversial and now-infamous obstruction call at third base.  (I agree that the ump made the correct call, but I also think that the rule itself probably needs to be revisited to consider intent.  Major League Baseball agrees.)

But no matter.  The Sox had plenty more games of baseball to play, and I had twelve more hours of movies to watch.


UP NEXT: Midnight To Noon At The Coolige!


*I've put myself back on my pre-wedding diet, although I haven't been quite as strict about it this time.  Getting to the gym has proven difficult, so it was either eat better or buy all new clothes.  I chose the former.