November 01, 2013

24 Hours Of Halloween Horror Part II: Revenge Of The Coolidge!


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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Like a lot of independent movie theaters, the Coolidge really goes all out for Halloween.  This year they kicked off their annual Halloween movie marathon with a quick but energetic set from local punk band The Mangled Dead, whose skeleton faced lead singer skateboarded down the aisle and onto the stage.  The performance was quickly followed up with a costume contest.  I was wearing my newly acquired Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man costume, but I was hopelessly outmatched by the other competitors, which included a giant flag waving Sgt. Slaughter, Tippi Hedron from The Birds, the personification of Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles (yum) and the best Gozer the Gozerian I've ever seen.  But the eventual victors were two guys who sat on the shoulders of two other guys and then wore long coats, bowler hats and fake mustaches, explaining that they were "two perfectly ordinary gentlemen who are certainly old enough to see this movie."  The clever gag quickly became an endurance test to see how long the guys on the bottom could hold out before collapsing or dropping their friends, but that only endeared them to the crowd even more.  After that it was movie time.

The only titles that the Coolidge announced in advance were the first two movies, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both of which were influenced by real life killer Ed Gein.  I've each both film a few times and totally love them, but I made an executive decision that if I was going to make it through some of the later films that I surely would not have seen, I was gonna need some nap time.  So I stayed awake through all the Marion Crane stuff in Psycho and the great scene where Arbogast interrogates Norman Bates and then gets pushed down a flight of stairs for his trouble, but otherwise I closed my eyes and let myself drift off throughout the movie.  And I caught the beginning of Texas Chainsaw including the great scene with the hitchhiker in the van, but then I dozed off until Sally hailed down the truck driver at the very end.    Next up was A Nightmare On Elm Street, which I had just watched the previous night, so I actually took that time to be productive.  I slipped out into the hallway, pulled out my laptop and knocked out my Krueger write up, popping back in just to see Johnny Depp get liquefied.

13 Ghosts (1960)

Oh that William Castle.  What an innovator.  Castle is considered the king of B-movie horror, but here's a guy who absolutely reveled in fucking with his audience while generating active engagement and interaction with the images on screen.  And he always came up with the most adorable names for his theatrical gimmicks.  The House On Haunted Hill included "Emergo," consisting of an actual skeleton on a wire that would fly out over the audience to mimic the onscreen action of the film's finale.  The Tingler was about a creature that would attach itself to the human spine and could only be killed by the sound of screaming.  In the end the creature is said to have gotten loose in the theater, so Castle bought up surplus airplane de-icers from the military and attached the vibrating motors to the bottom of some theater seats, calling it "Percepto."  (The urban legend is that Castle actually gave audience members electric shocks.)  But 13 Ghosts utilized what Castle called "Illusion-o": the audience members were given "ghost viewers," similar to the traditional red and blue 3D glasses but with the lenses laid out as parallel horizontal panes.  The film is shown in black and white, but any scene that includes a ghost is colored blue while the ghost itself is shown in red.  If you wanted to see the ghost you'd look through the red pane, but if you were "too scared" you could look through the blue pane and it would remain invisible.

While the Coolidge didn't have the original ghost viewers handy (and they would have been too expensive to actually make again) they did have a supply of 3D glasses that they handed out.  Whenever a ghost scene came up, you'd drop the glasses down over your eyes and then just close one eye or the other depending on what view you wanted to see.  If you kept both eyes open you could see both images at the same time and there was a faint 3D-ish effect while your brain tried to resolve the two colors.  It was really entertaining and  I can't help but think that Hollywood is in dire need of a new William Castle, a filmmaker who's willing to really go out on a limb in order to build unique theatrical experiences that will make people really want to go to the theater again.  Then again, Emergo screenings eventually devolved into a bunch of kids throwing empty soda cups and candy boxes to try and knock down the skeleton, which is pretty much the 1950's version of kids texting during the movie.

I don't have much to say about the movie itself, about a down on their luck family who inherit a haunted mansion, because I'll admit that I inadvertently drifted off a few times through this one as well, but I always managed to wake up whenever there was ghost effect happening.  Even still, I'm now morbidly curious to check out the remake with Matthew Lillard.


More Fulci!  This one is not nearly as coherent as Zombie Flesh Eaters, but it certainly is sillier. Again we've got a family that moves into a creepy old house (by a cemetery!) but instead of ghosts this one has an immortal mutant of sorts living in the basement.  After a researcher goes mad and seemingly kills himself and his mistress while investigating the experiments of a crazy scientist named Dr. Freudstein, Norman Boyle moves his wife Lucy and young son Bob into the man's house to continue the research.  Bob soon meets a little girl that no one else can see, there's a weird babysitter who doesn't talk and a whole lot of characters behaving in ways that make little to no sense.  At one point the family grows so disturbed that they tell the estate agent they want to move out of the house immediately.  The agent soon arrives at the empty house and is brutally murdered by the evil basement dweller, leaving a huge trail of blood across the floor.  The next scene shows mute babysitter Ann scrubbing away the blood only to have Lucy walk in with a bag of groceries, acting like there's absolutely nothing strange about that.  There are no more discussions of leaving the house.  The traditional Italian post-dubbing of all the dialogue certainly doesn't mitigate the inadvertent humor of it all and only makes the whole enterprise feel even more absurd.  And every time young Bob opened his mouth, especially whenever he was talking to his possibly imaginary friend, all I could think of was the kid from Pod People, my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

There is some great gore and a couple of really awesome death scenes, including a sweet decapitation and a whopper of a kill in the first few minutes.  But there are long stretches of the film that are unbearably slow.  It's an oddity to be sure, a few moments of delightful insanity surrounded by a borderline incomprehensible mess.

Near Dark (1987)

At this point it was about 8:00 AM and the crowd had definitely thinned out a bit.  The staff had stopped introducing every film after 13 Ghosts, which meant we got no preface, description or explanation for what we were about to watch and had to discover it all as it unfolded.  I'd never heard of Near Dark before, but as every credit flashed across the screen I knew I was in for a treat.  Lance Henriksen.  Bill Paxton.  Adrian Pasdar.  Written and directed by a pre-Point Break Kathryn Bigelow.  I'm already in.

Pasdar jumps out of his pickup truck in a dusty denim jacket and a beat up cowboy hat, and it suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks.  There's always been something oddly familiar about him but I could never place my finger on it.  But seeing him as a Caleb The Cowboy I had a flash of Necessary Roughness and finally realized that Pasdar is an off-brand, humorless version of Scott Bakula.  Henceforth he shall be referred to solely as Not Bakula.  So Caleb The Cowboy meets a hot, ethereal young blonde named Mae and they drive around and look at the stars for a while until Mae really wants to go home and Caleb The Cowboy refuses to give her a ride until she makes out with him a bunch.  She obliges and then takes a big old bite out of his neck and HOLY SHIT Kathryn Bigelow made a vampire movie and nobody told me!

The sun comes up as Caleb The Cowboy is stumbling home and he's starting to look a bit extra crispy when suddenly a Winnebago with blacked out windows pulls up and grabs him right in front of Caleb's father and sister.  Inside we find Lance Henriksen as lead vamp Jesse, Jenette Goldstein as his wife Diamondback, an adolescent vampire named Homer (not making this up) and a full-on manic Bill Paxton as Severen, the loose cannon vampire.  This thing just gets better and better!

Then it doesn't.

Look, if this was a movie about an awesome cadre vampires (played almost entirely by the space marines from Aliens) who steal cars and attack dumb hillbillies as they wander across the southwest, well you couldn't pry me away from that movie.  Especially with Henriksen and Paxton at the wheel.  There aren't a lot of pointy fangs or transformations or really any of the traditional vampire tropes.  In fact, nobody ever says the word vampire, which lends the whole thing a somewhat classier vibe.  But whenever the Weyland-Yutani crew are on screen, everything pops.  There's a scene where the posse wanders into a dive bar and each vampire gets to take down the patron of their choice.  But instead of a fast and brutal attack, it's all done with cheeky and lackadaisical sense of fun - these guys really like to play with their food.  That's not to say it isn't violent; the waitress gets her throat ripped open, but instead of sucking her dry Henriksen shoves a beer mug under the wound and and fills it up, using her throat as a beer tap.  And I simply cannot overstate how wonderfully psychotic Paxton is here.  Look, I like Apollo 13 as much as the next guy, but I really miss young, vibrant Bill Paxton.  There's also a daytime shoot out with the cops at a motel that's brilliantly staged; the cops don't know they're dealing with vampires, but they're outside shooting holes in the walls and each hole lets in a shaft of sunlight that acts like a laser beam to the solar-averse banditos inside.  It's both energetic and beautiful, all the more impressive considering that it was Bigelow's first solo directing gig.  It's little wonder she's got an Oscar.

Unfortunately, Not Bakula kind of sucks.  He's squeamish about killing people so he spends most of the film moping around being lame while Paxton gives him shit for being such a wimp.  He doesn't belong in this crew of badasses and everyone knows it.  But there's also no dire conflict between Caleb The Cowboy and his new undead family.  He doesn't seem to mind the fact that they're totally fucking evil so long as he gets to keep making out with Mae and doesn't have to get his own hands bloody.  It's only when they accidentally bump into Caleb's family and Homer wants to turn his sister into a new immortal playmate that Caleb The Cowboy decides to abandon the group and return home.  It's hard to watch Near Dark without thinking of the The Lost Boys, especially since they were released in the same year.  Unfortunately for Bigelow and Not Bakula, the former utterly pales in comparison to the latter, lacking the sense of fun that comes part and parcel with the presence of The Coreys.  Also, the romance between Caleb The Cowboy and Mae is the dullest, least sexy vampire romance I've ever seen.  Oh yeah, and they cure Caleb's vampirism with a simple blood transfusion.  Lame sauce.

Near Dark is nearly a good movie.  The story is pretty slight, but I honestly wouldn't mind that if only the incredible supporting cast wasn't being dragged down by the lead weight of Not Bakula.

Brain Damage (1988)

Part low budget schlock horror, part after school special, Brain Damage is the tale one man whose life gets flushed into the shitter due to his own unfortunate addiction.  The rub is that his addiction comes in the form of Elmer (or Aylmer), a blue, wormlike parasite with adorable eyes and the voice of a friendly neighbor who releases a chemical that allows the host to totally trip balls while experiencing psychedelic euphoria.  But while you're busy tasting colors, Elmer off in the corner eating some poor fool's brain.

The story is your basic morality tale detailing the nightmares of drug addiction.  Our protagonist Brian gets seduced by the smooth talking and just this side of cute Elmer, who promises incredible highs if Brian will just put the creature on the back of his neck.  Elmer unhinges his jaw, revealing the horrifying array of jagged teeth, and extends a long needle from inside his mouth that reaches all the way into Brian's brain and drips a blue liquid onto his grey matter.  It makes Brian downright giddy and the experience is so intense that soon his normal life just doesn't measure up.  He locks himself away in his room, stops going to work and won't talk to his brother or his girlfriend Barbara.  And when he does go out on a date, he ends up running out on her and getting high in the alley, only to wander into a punk club and get a blowjob from a random woman in leather who ends up getting a mouthful of Elmer.  Not a euphemism, although I think I just made it one.

Once Brian realizes that people are dying and the old man that Elmer escaped from delivers a long monologue explaining the creature's intricate history, Brian locks himself away in a seedy motel room and tries to quit cold turkey.  He ends up going through a painful withdrawal, twitching and foaming at the mouth while Elmer splashes around in the sink and taunts Brian, even singing a fucking song about his own awesomeness.  Eventually Brian gives in and the two basically go on a killing spree that includes his now ex-girlfriend who's found comfort in the arms of Brian's brother.  Needless to say, it doesn't end well for Brian.  Like any good drug addict, eventually he overdoses and gets so much juice to the brain that his head literally explodes in light.

All the drug stuff is about as subtle as a mouthful of Elmer and you're certainly not going to dazzled by the dramatic prowess of star Rick Hearst, but that little blue worm is such an oddly entertaining creation that you simply cannot take your eyes off of him.  His voice is almost hypnotically soothing, like the host of an easy listening radio station, and the combination of puppetry and stop-motion feels like the unholy demon spawn of Jim Henson and Henry Selick.  It's unreal, in that I can't believe this is a real movie.  Fans of director Frank Henenlotter, a.k.a. the man behind Frankenhooker, will recognize a familiar man and his basket riding on a subway car near the end.

This is how I'm going to teach my children about the dangers of drug addiction, and I don't even need to buy it because you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

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The lights came up and the once packed theater was now only about a quarter full.  I gathered up my belongings, stumbled out into the sunshine and drove home just in time for the start of the Patriots game.  You'd think that I would have passed out for the rest of the day, but I was surprisingly alert.  It's at this point my wife would point out that I almost never consume caffeine, not out of any kind of pretension or moral superiority, but simply because I don't like the taste of coffee and soda.  Unless there's booze involved, of course.

The Pats put the beatdown on Miami and a few hours later the Sox got retribution for Game 3: up by two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, a man on first and Carlos Beltran, one of St. Louis's best hitters at the plate, Red Sox closer Koji Uehara snapped the ball to first baseman Mike Napoli who tagged out the runner.  It was the first time a World Series game has ended on a pickoff play.

We were still in this thing.