More than three decades after I gave up candy, Halloween is still my super-favorite holiday, giving me an excuse to put the rest of my life on hold and revert to the Famous Monsters of Filmland–reading adolescent who dreamed of doing nothing but watching horror movies — by which I mean ghost and monster and mad-scientist movies, not newfangled, generally mindless plague films or hack-’em-ups1 or torture porn2. Just what we need: more films to make us feel even worse about our society at a time when we’ve got at least a shot —pace James Howard Kunstler — at pulling things together. At least the Little Movie That Could (after brilliant viral marketing), Paranormal Activity, for all its absurdities, reminds us of what drew us to ghost stories in the first place: the bump in the night.
In the same old-fashioned non-doomsday mode, Ti West’s The House of the Devil opens Friday, and on its own modest B-movie terms, it’s a dandy. Apart from one serious (and shocking) explosion of gore, it’s an ode to seventies gothic, female-oriented horror films in which less is more. Desperate for money, college sophomore Sam (Jocelin Donahue) answers an ad for a babysitter, and, along with her pal Megan (Greta Gerwig), heads deep into the woods to the old manse of — wait for it — Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. The doleful giant Noonan seems very regretful about what is about to happen. But there is that imminent eclipse of the moon, and his wife and (unseen) mother-in-law are breathing down his neck for ... what?
You have to be a bit indulgent to love The House of the Devil as much as I do. Gothic conventions require the heroine to walk trepidatiously down dark hallways and up dark staircases, and she does this, by my rough count, 72 times. But Donahue is very, very pretty (in a straight-ahead, Pamela Sue Martin kind of way) and I didn’t mind watching her face for long stretches. Mumblecore darling Gerwig has little coils of flakiness popping out of her, and I hated to see her leave the scene so early. Noonan made me laugh every time he appeared — and he's never camp. A.J. Bowen is like a subdued version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre character — and all the scarier for not leading with his slobber. Rarely has a film squeezed so much icky dread from a pizza — two different pizzas, actually. I’m not sure I understand the denouement, but it certainly leaves a door — or a portal to hell — open.
More Fun With Blood and Thunder
• Film Forum has a double bill (10/30 and 31) of Theatre of Blood, an overrated but often delicious bit of British Grand Guignol, in which actor-impresario Vincent Price inventively slays critics (according to methods prescribed by Shakespeare) who denied him a prize. Worse, he recites verse as he does it — and the sad thing is, Price is truly terrible at Shakespeare, all ham and no attention to meter. The critics in the movie are dead-on as well as dead. It’s paired with Scream of Fear, a.k.a. Taste of Fear, an excellent Diabolique retread.
• On the home front, all hail Turner Classic Movies on the 30th, 31st, and the wee hours of November 1! In addition to the usual suspects — The Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, Dead of Night, two Jekyll and Hydes (stick with Frederic March), and Psycho — it’s Boris Karloff central. Beyond The Ghoul (once thought lost, but for all the sepulchral atmosphere, killingly dull) and the Val Lewton–produced chillers Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatchers, you can see all five Karloff mad-scientist/back-from-the-dead, late-thirties/early-forties cheapies: The Walking Dead, Before I Hang, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, The Devil Commands.
I saw them all 40 years ago and can’t begin to remember the difference among the movies with “man” and “hang” in the title. But The Devil Commands, with its telepathic contact-the-dead machine, is altogether ooky; and I have a sentimental attachment to The Walking Dead because unjustly executed Karloff starts out so kindly and ends up so fiendish, and because the film was cobbled together with the grade-Z Son of Dr. Jekyll (also on TCM!) into a movie that the crew was endlessly subjected to in Ensign Pulver, the spotty sequel to Mister Roberts with a cast that included Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Jack Nicholson, James Coco, James Farantino, Peter Marshall, Hymie from Get Smart, Goober, and grown-up Anne Frank actress Millie Perkins as a WAC. There's another Karloff mad-scientist movie in this batch that I've never seen called The Ape: "A mad doctor poses as an ape and kills people for bodily fluids to help a disabled girl." Sounds good; I just added it to the TiVo.
• TCM also has something called Zaat (“A mad scientist transforms himself into an aquatic monster intent on populating the world with his progeny”), which sounds like too much of a hoot not to TiVo.
• On IFC, check out Romero’s flawed but still terrific anti-Mom picture Monkeyshines and Brian De Palma’s so-so Siamese-twin movie Sisters.
• Showtime offers, among other goodies, David Cronenberg’s sex-plague-in-Toronto epic, Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within) and Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings, which Robert Brustein once told me he thought was one of the most original horror pictures he’d seen because I forget. It had something to do with Ibsen.
• I wish I had the MGM HD channel, which Time Warner bundles into an expensive package with a lot of extreme sports channels I don’t need. (Why would they do that? It makes no sense.) If I had it, I wouldn’t miss Twins of Evil, a rare and excellent late Hammer vampire movie with twin blond Swedes (one good, one naughty) and an affectingly overwrought Peter Cushing (his wife had just died) as a fanatical Puritan witch hunter. There’s also the way-cool Vampire Circus (hard to see uncut), Donald Pleasance versus subway ghouls in the Guillermo del Toro fave (and mine) Raw Meat, the Manson-inspired The Return of Count Yorga, and the surprisingly nasty Grave of the Vampire.
My daughters have multiple Halloween parties as well as trick-or-treating and the Park Slope Halloween parade, but in addition to Zaat, I’m going to TiVo every one of the Karloff mad-scientist/back-from-the-dead movies, and one day soon when I’m not on deadline or blogging and the kids aren’t around, I’m going to watch them back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I’m going to do what I dreamed of doing at age 10. And then, damn it, I’ll tell you the difference between The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man With Nine Lives.
1 For instance, I don’t have much use for Zombieland, which turns the visionary tropes of George R. Romero into so much splatter camp. Enough with the doomsday scenarios. At my neighborhood multiplex, Zombieland was preceded by coming attractions for The Road (a high-toned, quasi-zombie end-of-civilization picture from a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and the latest Roland Emmerich disaster flick, 2012, already beginning to feed the hysteria of apocalyptic religious nuts. (If you want to see an inspired Romero homage, read Max Brooks’s novel World War Z, which takes Romero’s zombie-cannibal world as a given and explores its ramifications in ways — psychological, cultural, geopolitical — that connect with How We Live Now: an amazing book, a series of footnotes with a life of their own.)
2 Also at the multiplex is Saw VI, which I haven’t seen (after four of them I got the gist), but about which Melissa Lafsky at the Awl writes most engagingly:
The REAL question is: Why the hell are these chunks of cinematic shite so popular? The answer is simple: American guilt. We’re all thrashing around in a culture built on Me-ism—I want mine, I’ll do whatever it takes to get it, and fuck everybody else. And deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties, we KNOW we’re steeped in a moral wasteland, and that we’re little better than most criminals for spending our time worrying about how many panda-skin Jimmy Choos we can buy while a single mother of four works three jobs and still can’t afford to have a fucking cavity filled.
The beauty of these movies is that they’re blank slates to assuage our guilt — the scenarios are so ambiguous (random people plucked from ordinary assholery) and the characters so bland, they allow every one of us to imagine we’re the guilty douche in the torture chamber/poisoned house/corpse-sprinkled public bathroom. And they let us feel better, by presenting someone worse than us (drug dealers, wife beaters), and creating some sort of internal justice system. “Sure, I wrote a few misogynistic blog comments and scowled at a homeless man, but THAT guy killed a kid with his car! He’s worse than me! He deserves to have his extremities slowly twisted off by a giant Medieval crucifix!”