Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving. The real inauguration of the holiday season in the United States, and in homes, countries, points and vast places all around the globe, seems to begin here. If all goes according to plan, each year we enter into it primed to consider and acknowledge the aspects of our lives that make it worth living, our blessings, if you will. And so it is this year, even when things are not necessarily following the path to peace and happiness, in cities like Paris or Beirut or Chicago, or in many homes where sickness or poverty or other circumstances beyond individual control color our day-to-day experience outside the lines of a Rockwell-esque representation of holiday bliss.

And so it also has been for my family, a stressful month-long prelude to Thanksgiving Day precipitated by the simple act of changing bedsheets. One wrong move ended up meaning excruciating back pain, eventual back surgery and nearly the entire month of November recuperating in a hospital near downtown Los Angeles for our mother, all of which rippled out into an avalanche of worry for everyone else, especially my wife, who accepted her responsibility both as the primary facilitator for managing Mommy’s care within the system, and also for her father, who found himself suddenly unmoored from routine and the comfort of his wife’s company and set loose on a sea of anxiety over her well-being.

It has been a difficult, stressful time for all of us, and both my wife and I count ourselves lucky to be surrounded by those who seem to know how to care for us too in their own way, and that at-home care usually involves kitty cuddling and the liberal application of laughter inspired by our uniquely nutty daughters. Over this past month my wife’s tensions have often been effectively eased by the sound of their chatter and the invitation to join in a conversation which usually centers around Game of Thrones, Star Wars or some K-Pop phenomenon she only knows or cares about because it sends one or both of the girls into a hot-cheeked fangirl flame-out. (If there’s a copious supply of jelly beans nearby, so much the better.)

One evening last week I was slumped in a chair, bedraggled by a day of less-than-satisfying news about our mother’s level of pain in recovery and a long day of driving back and forth around Los Angeles through harrowing traffic on one errand of mercy or another, when suddenly my phone jingled, indicating the receipt of a text message. It was from my eldest daughter, and when I opened it I was greeted by a .GIF of a large man hitching up a longhorn steer in front of a saloon on the street of a pokey Western town. One of the town’s citizenry berates the large man: “You can’t park that animal here!” To which the large man responds by sauntering over and punching the citizen’s horse square in the jaw, knocking man and beast into the dust.

It was a clip, of course, from Blazing Saddles, a perhaps unlikely candidate for status as a Life-Changing or Otherwise Important Movie which has nonetheless been exactly that for me ever since I saw it when it played my hometown in 1974. I have somehow been able to transfer my love for Mel Brooks’ loony classic to my oldest youngster, and she knew that seeing the clip was just what I needed in my worn-out moment, just the thing to momentarily lift me out of the murkiness of worry and into a perhaps lighter place. After she got the big laugh she was fishing for, the clips began flying from her phone and pinging mine with speed and fury—“Hey, where the white women at?!” “To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Dutch.” “I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy!” “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” Of course, it wasn’t long before the stress was effectively chucked and I whipped out (cue horrified gasp from the citizens of Rock Ridge) the Blu-ray, allowing Frankie Laine to commence serenading us toward a familiar destination of comedy heaven which could never fully be contained by the boundaries of the Warner Brothers backlot.

I’ve always enjoyed telling my daughter stories of seeing the movie for the first time at age 14, in a packed house at my hometown movie palace, the Alger, accompanied by my mother, my younger sister (13) and for some reason my youngest sister (3) as well. We were seated together near the back of the auditorium, but it wasn’t long—sometime in the middle of Cleavon Little’s suave rail-side rendering of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” perhaps at the replacement of the word “kick” with the hilariously emphatic “belt”—before I was banished, because of my helpless and none-too-quiet laughter, to the back of the house, far enough away from the women to theoretically ease their embarrassment. Without missing a beat, I filled an empty seat just off the entrance to the snack bar and proceeded to howl away. 

Around the three-quarter mark, ate a movie's worth of relentless shrieking, I blasted a loud barking laugh in response to the gruff concession of frontier largesse directed by Olsen Johnson (David Huddelston) toward the multi-ethnic railroad workers whom Sheriff Bart has employed to help the citizens foil Hedley Lamarr's land-snatching ambitions-- "We'll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don't want the Irish!" My hometown, you see, was laregly settled by Irish immigrants, and the idea of the sort of self-made, white, Irish folks I knew being denied any such thing as land or even common courtesy was to my mind so randomly hilarious (I didn't know history at that point) that I couldn't help my convulsive response. It was then that I noticed the wife of the owner of the theater, Norene Alger, né Norene O'Keefe, standing in the doorway to the lobby just over my left shoulder. Oops! But before my humiliation could profoundly settle in, she put her hand  on that shoulder, leaned down, smiled and said, "I could hear you from the box office. I just wanted to come in and see if you were all right." She just thought she'd check in before calling an ambulance. How's that for customer service? 

Blazing Saddles may have seemed like a throwaway at the time, and in some ways I suppose it still is; therein lies a considerable part of its charm. But its staying power, particularly for a comedy that doesn’t seem so much rooted in style as in the rage and uncertainty of the moment in which it first became a sensation, is worth examining, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses inside the gorgeous Mel Brooks Collection Blu-ray box set from which we pulled Blazing Saddles the other night (which I wrote about for Ray Young’s late, lamented Flickhead blog six years ago) offer some interesting observations. For Brooks’ career, Blazing Saddles marked a seismic shift after the Oscar-winning triumph of The Producers and the relatively tepid reception of The Twelve Chairs; it changed Brooks’ entire approach to filmmaking (for better and worse), and it ended up being a landmark in movie comedy as well.

The 55-minute interview attached to the commentary track for that Blazing Saddles Blu-ray is an invaluable peek into the process of creating this foul-mouthed, subversive satire. In it Brooks details with fond remembrance, and not just a smidgen of frustration, the difficulties and joys of bringing the movie together. And in the set’s accompanying 120-page book, It’s Good to Be a King, Brooks recalls the process of fleshing out Andrew Bergman’s script, initially entitled Black Bart: “I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry,” said the director, beginning the movie’s transformation from a wacky lark into, as producer Michael Hertzberg says on one of the Blu-ray’s documentaries, a movie that felt as though it had to be made. “Writing the movie got everything out of me,” remembers Brooks, “all of my furor, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.”

Seen in 2015, Blazing Saddles is, against all odds, as funny as ever-- and this from someone who laughed so hard upon seeing it in 1974, you remember, that several of my classmates at school told me the next day, “I heard you at the movies last night!” To my mind that frenzy Brooks speaks of is channeled here into something truly representative not only of its creators’ states of mind, but the state of mind of the country at the time the movie was being made. It may be in many ways a pastiche, lacking the cohesive sense of style and tribute that marks Young Frankenstein, but no other Mel Brooks movie hits the kind of gasp-inducing highs that Blazing Saddles does, or sustains that delirium as well.

Maybe part of why the movie plays so brilliantly in 2015 is that it taps into our memories of a time that was perhaps less enlightened but also far less suppressed in terms of a culture’s permission to air its filthy laundry in the form of a vicious romp like this. (Even if someone had the nerve to try out a gag like Slim Pickens’ “#6 Dance” solution, in these lunatic days of trigger warnings and otherwise overly coddled sensibilities they’d likely get hauled up before a committee.) Going into the second American decade of the millennium, we have a Black president and nobody says the “N” word anymore. But anybody with sense and/or access to the daily reports filed from the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and Los Angeles and New York and all points around and between ought to be able to see that the old devils ain’t gone, they’re just hidden more deceptively. And as the 2016 presidential campaign begins ramping up it is clear enough that those devils are feeling distressingly empowered to start emerging from the shadows from where several decades of progressive social thinking had hoped to banish them. In Blazing Saddles Brooks fiddles with the enemy, recognizes him in us, and has a hell of a laugh in the attempted exorcism. In the long run that exorcism may not have worked, but it’s good to know that this movie, far exceeding is value as well-preserved time capsule, is still in there throwing punches around.

And thinking about this crazy picture certainly has seemed to have distracted me from other worries of the day too, hasn’t it? Mission accomplished, my sweet, thoughtful, .GIF-sending girl. I guess it wouldn’t be inappropriate at all to express thanksgiving to Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Richard Pryor and everyone who had a hand in making Blazing Saddles what it is. But I’m also grateful to my daughter for bringing it back to my attention, encouraging me with its humor and her appreciation of that humor, and for getting the movie back inside my head long enough to take me, for a few hours anyway, away from the worries swirling around in there with it. And oh, yeah, when I’m finished writing this we’re off to my wife’s parents’ house, where she will cook the day’s turkey and we’ll all raise a toast to happiness and health and all the rest of the things we seem to so easily take for granted. Our Mommy came back from the hospital yesterday, and we can’t wait to see her once again in the home where she belongs. She’s not a Mel Brooks fan, but that’s okay. Before and after dinner, while being waited on hand and foot, she can eat potato chips and watch anything she wants.


Thursday, November 12, 2015


Gunnar Hansen was born in Reykjavik, Iceland on March 4, 1947, and he died this past weekend, on November 7, in his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, from pancreatic cancer. In between those two dates he spent some of his formative years in Texas, where he worked as a bartender and a carpenter while attending the University of Texas at Austin. It was here where he tried out for an independent horror film being shot locally and, upon winning the role of Leatherface, the central figure within a demented family of cannibalistic killers, would begin the process of worming his way into not only a place at the table among the most recognizable and iconographic monsters in the annals of horror and pop culture in general, but also into 41 years’ worth of collective nightmares.

I speak, as I’m sure many who were in their early teens when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released in 1974 do, from experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, from a strange sort of secondhand experience. At age 14 I was too young to see the movie, at least by MPAA standards, and even though nationally it was a big hit right out of the gate Tobe Hooper’s story of Husqvarna-fueled mayhem was a still too forbidding and grindhouse savage to warrant a booking at my Southern Oregon hometown movie house. No matter. I saw pictures and reviews in movie magazines, and the art from that terrifying one-sheet replicated in newspaper ads, which featured an unfortunate victim squirming on a meat hook while Hansen’s masked creation warmed up his favorite gas-powered implement of chaos in the foreground, and I heard the testimony of a couple of friends who had actually seen it when it played in a nearby town. It wasn’t long before I had a pretty solid notion of what the movie might be like, and I was tantalized by it. Sight unseen, I was scared by it too.

So much so that, not long after the movie’s status as something of a scandalous box-office hit had been cemented, I had a series of nightmares inspired not by the movie itself, of course, but by my mere imaginings of the unspeakable horrors it offered. I remember several night flights down wooded corridors, or even down the darkened streets of some of the rougher outlying neighborhoods in my town. Those dreamscape neighborhoods, full of run-down houses and darkened by overgrown trees and the shadows they cast, absent of any of the friendly faces I hoped would run out to my rescue, were familiar but also, of course, alien and threatening. Who knew what might be inside those houses? I couldn’t tell that this was a dream while I was in it. I could only register running in sweaty panic from a hulking figure who looked a lot like Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface as he separated from those shadows and headed toward me. Though I tried, I couldn’t run fast enough from this human monster who didn’t seem to be much slowed by his oversized frame or the weight of the power saw he was wielding. He just… kept… on… chasing… me… and… would… not… stop...

When I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, in 1977 on a drive-in double feature re-release with the American cut of a 1973 giallo called Torso, I couldn’t help but notice how my nightmares seemed to so accurately anticipate the movie itself. But of course the reverse was more clearly true. I would only read later the observation written about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by critic Michael Goodman which has resonated with me probably more than anything ever written about the movie: “(The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity. The quality of the images, the texture of the sound, the illogic by which one incident follow another, all conform to the way we dream. What makes Chain Saw interesting is that since we are watching with our eyes open, it’s a nightmare from which we can’t wake up.” This I know is true, and if you’ve seen the movie you probably do too. And Gunnar Hansen has always been the one I’ve primarily thanked for that.

To offer gratitude and appreciation to a man for a lifetime of nightmares may seem perverse, but it’s what we horror fans do, both the discerning as well as the gluttonous, and for his one contribution to our unsettled consciousness (and unconsciousness) Hansen deserves our accolades. He was many things other than Leatherface in his 68 years, and in the time since he made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the blistering heat of a 1973 Austin summer and completed his UT graduate studies, he became a published poet, historian and, with the 2013 release of Chain Saw Confidential, a first-person account of the making of “the world’s most notorious horror movie,” a published author. (I reviewed the book in one of my first pieces for Fear of the Velvet Curtain.) The book is full of casual humor, off-handed observations and delicious detail regarding the filming of the movie which by all accounts, including Hansen’s, was a grueling and psychologically trying experience for all involved. Anyone interested in the movie and what it was like to not only play but to then live with the legacy of one of cinema’s most terrifying villains should read it.

But Chain Saw Confidential surprised me, much in the way that I suspect Hansen himself often surprised people. How could someone who could so convincingly embody such mindless evil be such a charming raconteur, such a genial presence, on the page and, according to those who knew him and had occasion to meet him, in real life? Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the creators of some of the most indelible horror imagery in the genre don’t match or otherwise resemble their vile, inexplicably monstrous creations, and in this Hansen was apparently no exception. Where my surprise registered—and had I known more about his literary background I might not have been so startled—was his facility, in Chain Saw Confidential, for plumbing some of the darker, more existential waters in search of meaning and understanding of the genre itself.

Whereas some who might have written about their experiences on films of this sort might have confined themselves to funny on-set anecdotes or dry rundowns of the production’s financial entanglements, Hansen went further. He examined not only the genre’s connection to precedents such as Gilgamesh, Homer, stories of werewolves and vampires of the Middle Ages, Freud, Jung, and the Gothic tradition of storytelling, but also some of the elements that truly fascinate all horror fans about a genre that, to those with no appreciation for it anyway, often seems so indefensible.

Near the end of Chain Saw Confidential Hansen registers disagreement with TCSM director Tobe Hooper’s assertion that the real monster, in his movie, in all movies, and in life itself, is death. And given the sad event of Hansen’s own passing this week, the response he offers to Hooper’s comment in his own book seems rich and reflective, but now also somehow poignant as well:

“The basic fear—the monster—within horror may be of death. But the horror goes beyond that. It can be existence itself. Or it can be more than death in some way—even the lack of death or maybe the idea of death, the infinitude after it. As told 4,000 years ago, it was the realization of the existence of death that horrified Gilgamesh… Whatever its elements, though, the horror movie is not, I think defined by its overt content—the supernatural, monsters, darkness, whatever—but by the viewer’s emotional reaction to what the movie creates… When horror works, you walk out of the theater feeling oppressed and empty, feeling as if you had glimpsed something you did not want to see… Terror is a kind of suspense or extreme fear. Horror, on the other hand, is about the larger meanings of what we are fearing.”

Those larger meanings may be argued and never settled, but in his own way, through his portrayal as Leatherface and as the author of Chain Saw Confidential, this actor and writer did his part to help illuminate them and spur the discussion forward, while giving us occasion to vicariously experience the horror and hysterical pleasure of a profound scare. Rest in peace, Gunnar Hansen.


Friday, November 06, 2015


The new movie Spotlight begins inside a South Boston police station in 1976, where a Catholic bishop is counseling a distraught mother who may or may not bring charges against the priest accused of molesting her son. According to the desk sergeant outside the witness room, the bishop is in the station to “help out,” which in practical terms means not-so-subtly reminding the mother of all the good the church has done and continues to do that could presumably be undone if she pursues legal and very public recourse, as well as offering his hushed assurances that the offending priest will be dealt with and the crime her child has endured will never, ever happen again. Outside the witness room, a police officer speculates to the sergeant about the developing situation that “It’s gonna be hard to keep the papers away from the arraignment.” The sergeant shrugs and shakes his head. “What arraignment?” Soon the bishop has been spirited away by a limousine into the winter night, his bit of foul diplomacy finished—the mother has been placated, the problem at hand brushed aside.

With a few quick strokes, director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) and his co-scenarist Josh Singer (The West Wing, Fringe) establish not only the conspiratorial indifference and perhaps irrational instinct to protect the established bureaucracy of faith pervasive in largely Irish Catholic Boston neighborhoods of the day. They also establish the fleet, sturdy storytelling standards that will define their movie and give it weight as its narrative shifts closer to the present day and focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigative efforts, which began in July 2001, to expose a truly horrific network of abuse and cover-ups within the church, and to document and serve a community torn between personal morality and a fealty to religious faith.

Spotlight operates under the looming shadow of a scenario familiar to anyone used to holding a newspaper in their hands over the past 30 years or so. The arrival of Marty Baron, a new editor imported from the Miami Herald (Liev Schrieber, in a precisely understated performance), has the Globe staff wondering if more budget and personnel cuts, to appease the downtrend in revenue from classified ads as well as waning interest in print journalism in the Internet age, are on the way. The new boss won’t deny the possibility, but he’d rather attempt to make the paper essential to its readers again, and to that end presses two of his editors, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son of the famed Washington Post editor, on how the Globe could fail to adequately follow-up on a recent story of a local priest caught up in accusations of molestation and abuse from 80 separate victims. The downcast glances and defensive discomfort of Bradlee and Robinson during this exchange eloquently suggest their worry that Baron, the first Jew to ever head up the Globe’s editorial staff, might be perceived as out to do damage to a religious institution he doesn’t empathize with, much less understand. But their defensiveness is just as closely related to their own history within the largely Catholic Boston community, as Catholics themselves (lapsed or otherwise) or as journalists aware of the church’s pervasive influence.

The movie’s empathetic awareness of this socio-religious grounding, which colors both the victims’ reticence to come forward and the journalists’ urgency to shed light on the crimes perpetrated upon them, proves to be a strong foundation for the movie’s own pursuits, among which include a compelling case, in this age of Internet downgrades and rehashed click-bait, for the urgency of investigative reporting. The obvious touchstone for Spotlight is Alan Pakula’s film of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and both as a compelling distillation of factual material (here based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage of the Globe as well as the contributions of Robinson and the principal members of the Spotlight team) and as a film, the comparison is apt. McCarthy shares with Pakula a cool confidence in the material—there is no aggressive stylistic showboating going on here, only a quiet assurance and observational quality well suited to a movie about reporting a case which relies heavily on the discretion and intuitiveness of the reporters at its center.

That confidence extends to the portrayal of the Globe journalists—Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who heads up the paper’s long-term investigative team, dubbed Spotlight; Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a writer whose life has been subsumed by his desire to chase down leads; Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers a halfway house for accused priests in his own neighborhood and has to keep quiet until the Globe’s story breaks; and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who dutifully attends mass with her grandmother and is haunted by what the revelations the Spotlight team is pursuing might do to the older woman’s faith.

Each of these actors deliver seemingly ego-free portrayals that are grounded in a degree of realism not found in newspaper dramas like Absence of Malice or The Paper. These aren’t crusaders looking for the nearest soapbox—they’re people who I’m guessing might rather not be defined by their jobs yet find it difficult to fight their instincts to get neck-deep in the story. And every one of these actors look at home in the newsroom, especially Ruffalo, whose testy, defiant, yet ingratiating Rezendes looks like he was born cajoling witnesses on the phone while shoveling forkfuls of Chinese food into his maw. Film critic Stephanie Zacharek, in her assessment of the movie for the Village Voice, describes the actor thusly: “Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who's given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: He's all sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling.” (I can’t do better than that. Zacharek’s entire review, which really is a must-read, can be found here.)

McAdams stands out as much for what she doesn’t do. Her Pfeiffer, at home and on the job, is a natural listener, but instead of an empty vessel the character registers as analytically alive to the people she engages. She has particular empathy for a young man (Michael Cyril Creighton) struggling with the notion of coming forward, who confides in her the spiritual devastation he experienced from the betrayal of a priest who assured him it was okay to be gay and then proceeded to undermine his entire sense of self by associating his primary homosexual encounter with confusion and shame. Creighton is tremulously magnificent in his brief appearance, abetted by the generosity of McAdams, who reflects Pfeiffer’s journalistic curiosity and capacity for understanding without a hint of actorly affectation.

But Keaton is Spotlight’s richest treasure. The actor trades on his likability, without necessarily playing sympathetic characters, like just about no one in the business right now, and his appearance here builds brilliantly on the combination of arrogance, affability and anguish he worked up to a lather in Birdman. As Robinson, he enriches the role by never quite buying into the easy mark of the editor as the movie’s primary moral force. (The fact that he’s part of a true ensemble, rather than king of the hill, also helps to undercut the notion.) There’s always a hint of a shadow at play over Keaton’s expressive, this-side-of-sardonic mug, and it’s a measure of the movie’s contemplative authority that Robinson, the one orchestrating the spotlight, would be the one whose own past mistakes might be most painfully exposed. Among the many outstanding performances here, Keaton’s shines brightest, shadows and all.

Among this excellent movie’s smartest moves was to not to inflate these working-class journalists into pompous, phony heroes, and outside of some of the outrage expressed by Rezendes as the archdiocese starts quietly wielding their influence against the tide of charges, McCarthy avoids the sort of excessive histrionics that might have undercut and distracted from its power. Instead, the director offers a relative stillness and sturdiness to his movie, and he resists the temptation to bog down in clichés of glowering priests in shadowy confessionals—why bother when you’ve got such an insinuating, deceptively cordial presence as Len Cariou’s Cardinal Law, apparent conductor of the archdiocese’s policy of shuffling offending clerics off to their next post to continue their criminal predilections, operating right there in broad daylight? And unlike a movie like Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, a movie all about righteous and violent revenge against the perpetrators of sexual abuse, Spotlight refuses to indulge in ghastly flashbacks whose purpose could only be to inflame the audience’s outrage and exploit the anguish and pain of abuse.

Instead, that outrage is channeled toward figures such as a smarmy victims’ lawyer (Billy Crudup), or the church’s own counsel (Jamey Sheridan), whose moral compass has been compromised by the dissonance between what he believes and what he knows. By comparison, Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer who holds the key to documents delineating what the cardinal knew about the extent of the abuse, may at first seem like a lark. But the actor has rarely seemed this focused, this engaged. Garabedian is impatient, brusque and calculating, but his cynicism is transparent, his interest in the victims he represents genuine, and Tucci invests a welcome measure of gamesmanship in him to match the desperate doggedness of Ruffalo’s Rezendes during their frequent encounters—he wants the reporter to earn his keep. They balance each other beautifully, while spurring each other on, and their scenes together, particularly when Rezendes interviews one of Garabedian’s understandably reluctant clients to an unexpected conclusion, sound off a deep and resonant chord.

McCarthy’s directorial instincts of modulation serve well to bear the movie up under the awful weight of its amassing of detail, relating both to the crime and to the specific social milieu of Boston Catholic pride and shame in which it unfolds, and Spotlight becomes all the more powerful in its refusal to grandstand. It demonstrates with purpose the power of restraint and understatement, and in so doing comes to deserve comparison with All the President’s Men as a great American movie about journalism, infused with a certain melancholy derived from the subject of its investigation, but also from an awareness of the inexorable and unpredictable transition of the profession itself. Early on, when Baron expresses a desire to make the Globe indispensable to its core readership again, Robinson responds, “I’d like to think it already is.” Spotlight shares that belief toward the function of investigative journalism and eloquently illustrates why it’s an important one in which to invest, even as the tactile sensation of newsprint on fingers threatens to become a thing of the past.


Saturday, October 31, 2015


Halloween doesn’t have to be over once the last trick-or-treater has crept back into the shadows of the night. You may still be possessed by the spirit of the holiday and in desperate need of some real scares. In an effort to address that need and help you find a choice that goes beyond the usual iconography of the season, I’ve picked three titles that may not immediately jump to mind when it comes to autumn-tinged chills and terror. They are not self-consciously seasonal choices, like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Michael Dougherty’s 2007 anthology Trick ‘R Treat, both excellent choices for cinematic fear on the pumpkin circuit. Two of them rely more on mood, creeping dread, an insinuating style and, dare I say, even a poetic approach to storytelling than the usual Samhain-appropriate fare. And one has an inexplicably bad reputation in the halls of conventional wisdom, accused of being repellent and tastelessly disturbing when it is in fact repellent, pointedly disturbing and entirely, rousingly effective in the shock and scare department, complete with a third-act twist that, if it hasn’t somehow already been spoiled for you, you will likely never guess. So when you’re ready, unpack the leftover trick-or-treat candy, get under the blanket and get ready. One of these—perhaps all three—will be just ticket to freeze your blood one last time before the more benign portion of our holiday season begins. You have been warned.


Horror movies are a great ticket during the summer months (and when the summer heat extends well into fall, as it customarily does here in Los Angeles), because a really good screamer, like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, can give you the kind of deep-seated chills that go way beyond the cooling of the skin provided by central air. And bless your soon-to-be-rotted soul if you can get your claws on one that happens to be set in a wintry environment, thus inviting the visual component to conspire with the narrative to bring your body temperature down to grave-worthy levels. Movies like The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983)-- David Cronenberg does seem to have a way with the desolate chill of winter-- The Thing (versions 1951 and 1982), the climax of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), one particularly icy moment involving Lew Ayres from Damien: Omen II (1978), Let the Right One In (2008) and Matt Reeves’ stunningly good remake Let Me In (2010), which trades the Swedish frost for a New Mexico variety, and last but certainly not least 2008’s woefully underappreciated The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)—these are all excellent examples of how to use a frozen landscape to accentuate and inform a sense of dread and fear.

Some of you may also remember an ABC Movie of the Week entitled A Cold Night’s Death, directed by Jerrold Freeman and starring Robert Culp and Eli Wallach as two scientists air-lifted to a remote Arctic research station who find the facility strangely abandoned, a group of research monkeys in a near-frozen state, and lots of indicators that something has not gone according to plan. This TV-movie occupies a special place in the hearts of many of my generation’s movie genre thrill-seekers, and it’s been famously difficult to find, showing up for the occasional late-night showing when local stations still actually still ran late-show movie programming, but rarely screened since infomercials became the all-nighter’s TV anesthesia of choice. (It’s now available all over YouTube.)

Feel free to add Jaume Collet-Serra’s spectacularly unnerving Orphan (2009) to that short list of superb wintry horror tales. Set in Connecticut during the blustery snowbound months, the movie knows how to exploit that frosty climate—a couple of its more harrowing outdoor set pieces are enhanced by the sense of fear created by the landscape feeling different, less hospitable, less inhabitable, more dangerous. As in those other movies, Orphan cannily externalizes the sense of things not being quite under control by plunging us into this environment so often associated with seasonal joy and familial closeness, where unexpected cracks in the ice can form under our feet, or vehicles can go sailing off slick roads into horrible peril, or toward unaware victims.

But the chill in the air surrounding Orphan is only nominally due to its frozen setting. The movie, by means psychological and cinematic, means to put a freeze on your nerves, and that it pretty handily does is a credit to an exceedingly clever script by David Leslie Johnson and Collet-Serra’s prodigious talent for throwing the audience’s expectations askew. He does perhaps rely on loud noises and the old "who’s standing behind the refrigerator/medicine cabinet door" trick a bit too much, but so much else about this tale of parental entitlement and fear is so skillfully rendered and low-down effective that I was more than willing to forgive the director this relatively venial sins.

The opening sequence of Orphan will be a very telling indicator of whether you can deal with the shocks the movie has in store. A beatific and pregnant young woman named Kate (Vera Farmiga) is being wheeled into the hospital, her loving husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) by her side, presumably toward the maternity ward where her dreams of becoming a mother are about to come true. The camera hugs the beaming Kate in close-up as a nurse pushes her along, when suddenly we see a look of distress disrupt her glowing face, slowly turning her visage away from joy into a mask of confusion and agony. Kate is obviously in increasingly sharp pain, and yet the nurse never changes the deliberate pace of the wheelchair, never acknowledges the state of her patient except to offer, in a most ghostly, noncommittal tone, “We’re so sorry for your loss, dear.” Loss?

Collet-Serra then gives us the first of many sudden shifts in perspective to come, as we see the nurse and patient inching across the wide-screen frame from the point of view of a detached observer from high above, leaving a trail of blood from the abruption occurring inside the woman’s uterine canal along the hospital’s incongruous white shag carpeting. Soon, Kate is strapped to a hospital bed and surrounded with masked surgeons and medical personnel who coolly, callously inform her that she has lost her baby and that an emergency C-section is about to begin. Her screams of denial and horror are met with the happy glance of her husband, himself done up in surgical gown and mask, who continues to aim his video camera at her despite the obviously horrific turn their blissful moment has taken. And he never stops shooting, not even when the nurse pulls a dead, blood-soaked fetus from Kate’s womb and sets it on her chest, a ghastly hello and goodbye rolled into one traumatic moment. At which point Kate screams and wakes up…

Speaking personally, as a father who has witnessed something as horrific, if not as garishly so, as what happens to Kate in her morbidly enhanced nightmare remembrance of profound loss, I had to fight the urge to bolt from the theater during this opening sequence. And had Collet-Serra continued to operate in this weirdly dissociative style of De Palma-tinged surgical theater of horror, who knows how much I could have/would have taken? Fortunately, the director gives us this peek into Kate’s tortured psyche as a way of grounding her psychologically and filling out Farmiga’s choices in playing the character in a way that a simple back story—and everyone here has a back story laced with tragedy—would not do nearly so completely. The movie is not, as one might reasonably expect from the prologue, a grisly freak show, but instead a portrait of how tragedy can unravel even the most perfect-seeming of families and make them vulnerable to outside forces that will personify and exploit the interpersonal instability and mistrust that already exists.

During her waking hours Kate, a musician with an alcohol problem who spends her days as a housewife after losing her teaching job at Yale, really is reeling from the stillbirth of a child. She and John, an architect who presumably designed their dazzling postmodern hillside home, channel the reaction to their trauma into a strong desire to adopt. The desperate zeal to patch this hole in their life with an older “sister” to join their two biological children, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Max (a deaf five-year-old played by the remarkable Aryana Engineer), leads them to an orphanage with a none-too-strict policy on background checks. It’s here where they meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman in a shockingly good debut performance), a preternaturally self-possessed nine-year-old Russian girl who dazzles the couple with her artistic ability, her sweet nature, and the pained perspective of the lost child she projects with apparent sincerity, which plays directly into the couple’s savior fantasies of providing for a child in need.

Of course, Esther soon reveals a malevolent side. She orchestrates a playground accident that seriously injures a schoolyard enemy. She puts a bird out of its misery with a rock after Daniel wounds it and cannot bring himself to finish the job. She subtly threatens and emotionally blackmails little Max into assisting her in a series of increasing devilish deeds, at one point pulling a revolver on the guileless child. (“Want to play?” she coolly inquires, removing all but one bullet, spinning the chamber and pointing it at Max’s head. “Perhaps later.”) Something about Esther’s artistic abilities— her mastery of Tchaikovsky on the piano, her increasingly elaborate paintings— also suggests that someone has not provided the whole story on this cinematic descendant of evil little Patty McCormick, and the ones most skillfully holding back on the big picture are the cast and director of Orphan. Truly, if Ms. McCormick was The Bad Seed, there is increasingly little doubt that Esther is the worst.

If it seems I have spent too much time detailing the roots of the horror Collet-Serra and company have concocted, it’s because to reveal much more would be in violation of the pact this movie makes with its audience to peel back ever-escalating levels of disturbing, psychologically believable behavior by means of a surprising level of horror filmmaking craft. (Stay away from any review that wants to talk about the plot in any kind of detail.) Collet-Serra’s previous horror outing, the Dark Castle productions remake of House of Wax, was a decent effort, marred by a slew of obnoxious stock characters who seemed much more pleasant smothered under molten paraffin. As enjoyable as it was for us, it was apparently a waste of time for him, so much more accomplished is his work here. As I said before, Collet-Serra tends to overdo a certain variety of stock horror movie shocks, but he just as often adds an extra touch—an unexpected camera angle, a beat or two longer for us to twist in the wind before the anticipated jolt arrives with not quite the timing we expected—that enriches the sense of our being guided by someone who has a true knack for harvesting gooseflesh.

It also helps that Orphan features probably the best cast, top to bottom, of any horror movie in recent memory, from familiar faces to rosy-cheeked children who we’ve never seen before. Farmiga, an actress who I frequently find annoying, uses her reputation for portraying ineffectual authority figures (see The Departed) to throw us off the trail of what she has charted out for this character. She plumbs the depths of despair, all right, but there’s an unexpected strength, an exhilarating anger that surfaces in Kate which makes her resistance of Esther, and their ultimate conflict, fraught with multiple, creepy levels of resonance. She also expresses fear and horror extremely well, adding strange physical ticks and vocal hiccups to her flailing about that communicate the character’s disorientation and desperation with frightening, if ironic, assurance.

Sarsgaard has a more thankless role, the disbelieving spouse who is so eager to give Esther the benefit of the doubt, against all reason it sometimes seems, that he ends up in the Compromised Position of All Compromised Positions. Even so, he retains a measure of sympathy because he seems genuinely conflicted between his duty to believe his wife and his duty as an adopted father. As mentioned earlier, Bennett and particularly Engineer are excellent child actors asked to go well beyond what one might think someone so young could make believable, and they achieve their goals with brilliance. There’s even room for quality character actors like CCH Pounder as an ill-fated orphanage nun and Margo Martindale as Kate’s far-too-even-keeled therapist.

But the real praise belongs to Isabelle Fuhrman, who will, whatever else her career holds in store, forever be Esther, a child who harbors depths of foulness far deeper than we will, thanks to the clever screenplay and Fuhrman’s prepossessed facility as an actress, ever be able to accurately guess. Speaking in a light Russian accent that turns from sing-song to deathly hollow in a twitch, Fuhrman delivers the goods, drawing us in with misplaced sympathy even when we know we’re one step ahead of the hapless family in the story. The movie invites speculation throughout about Esther’s origins, her motivation, but as it becomes clearer and clearer that Collet-Serra and Johnson have something up their sleeves that is far worse than what we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine, Fuhrman rises to the occasion with a fury and a camp (as well as vamp) haughtiness that places the movie in the vicinity of one of Brian De Palma’s great sick jokes.

Late in the game, when her face grows sallow and sunken and she embarks on the final stages of an inevitable course of execution, the audience realizes, with great shock and giddy satisfaction, that we weren’t as ahead of the game as we thought. Fuhrman, so young and talented, drives home the movie’s final conceit like a stake in the audience’s collective heart, with the pitch-black glee of an instant icon of horror. All the way home from the theater, it seemed every bus kiosk was lit with her terrifying visage from the movie’s advertising campaign. But it wouldn’t have done any good to close my eyes. Esther is one for profound nightmares. So is Orphan.

(Orphan is available from Amazon streaming and on Warner Home Video Blu-ray and DVD.) 



Halloween doesn’t have to be over once the last trick-or-treater has crept back into the shadows of the night. You may still be possessed by the spirit of the holiday and in desperate need of some real scares. In an effort to address that need and help you find a choice that goes beyond the usual iconography of the season, I’ve picked three titles that may not immediately jump to mind when it comes to autumn-tinged chills and terror. They are not self-consciously seasonal choices, like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Michael Dougherty’s 2007 anthology Trick ‘R Treat, both excellent choices for cinematic fear on the pumpkin circuit. Two of them rely more on mood, creeping dread, an insinuating style and, dare I say, even a poetic approach to storytelling than the usual Samhain-appropriate fare. And one has an inexplicably bad reputation in the halls of conventional wisdom, accused of being repellent and tastelessly disturbing when it is in fact repellent, pointedly disturbing and entirely, rousingly effective in the shock and scare department, complete with a third-act twist that, if it hasn’t somehow already been spoiled for you, you will likely never guess. So when you’re ready, unpack the leftover trick-or-treat candy, get under the blanket and get ready. One of these—perhaps all three—will be just ticket to freeze your blood one last time before the more benign portion of our holiday season begins. You have been warned.


A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rearview mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets.
A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.

In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness.
Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper.
But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds.

The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments, Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned.
If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.

(Eyes Without a Face is available in a restored and incomparably gorgeous Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection.)



Halloween doesn’t have to be over once the last trick-or-treater has crept back into the shadows of the night. You may still be possessed by the spirit of the holiday and in desperate need of some real scares. In an effort to address that need and help you find a choice that goes beyond the usual iconography of the season, I’ve picked three titles that may not immediately jump to mind when it comes to autumn-tinged chills and terror. They are not self-consciously seasonal choices, like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Michael Dougherty’s 2007 anthology Trick ‘R Treat, both excellent choices for cinematic fear on the pumpkin circuit. Two of them rely more on mood, creeping dread, an insinuating style and, dare I say, even a poetic approach to storytelling than the usual Samhain-appropriate fare. And one has an inexplicably bad reputation in the halls of conventional wisdom, accused of being repellent and tastelessly disturbing when it is in fact repellent, pointedly disturbing and entirely, rousingly effective in the shock and scare department, complete with a third-act twist that, if it hasn’t somehow already been spoiled for you, you will likely never guess. So when you’re ready, unpack the leftover trick-or-treat candy, get under the blanket and get ready. One of these—perhaps all three—will be just ticket to freeze your blood one last time before the more benign portion of our holiday season begins. You have been warned.


 “I just need to scream, that’s all.” So says a beleaguered actress looping her lines in a low-rent Italian studio where the soundtrack of a sexually violent giallo film, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex), is being finalized under the guidance of the film’s abrasive producer and its pretentious, deceptively avuncular director. Also working behind the soundproof glass is Gilderoy (the marvelous Toby Jones), a sound engineer imported from Britain whose résumé is more closely associated with inoffensive nature documentaries than with the sort of ghoulish undertaking on which he now finds himself at work.

Gilderoy, a naturally recessive man ideally fitted to the anonymity of postproduction, is at first perplexed at having even been chosen to work on a film bearing a title he soon discovers has nothing to do with horses gamboling in pastoral settings. But that puzzlement soon gives way to an escalating tension between Gilderoy’s passionless, professional, purely mechanical need to just get on with the job and his increasingly apparent psychological defenselessness against the exploitative evidence of the horrors depicted in the film.

In its surface form, the strange, hypnotizing Berberian Sound Studio has a hushed formality that insinuates itself underneath your skin in search of a frisson of psychological fear, a method far removed from the violent visual cacophony of the typical giallo. Yet it is absolutely suffused with fetishistic  close-ups— of 1976-vintage sound and film equipment—and hallucinatory aural landscapes, innocent sounds created from mundane Foley sessions which cannot be separated from associations with the grisly imagery they are meant to enhance, that are the hallmark of vintage Italian horror. 

Writer-director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy) seals Gilderoy, and us, inside the studio, surrounded by sounds we cannot reconcile with sights that are denied us-- the clever faux opening title sequence for Il Vortice Equestre  is the only footage we ever actually see-- and the free-floating dread and disorientation Gilderoy begins to experience eventually becomes our own. Even the letters Gilderoy receives from his mother back in England, filled with benign accounts of bird-watching and the unmistakable longing for her son—Gilderoy’s only lifeline to a world he recognizes— begin to take on awful shadings as the engineer’s grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous. 

Viewers will be reminded of Argento, certainly (those close-ups of tape machines scream Deep Red), but through the constant layering of ghastly shrieks and perverse sound effects  the spirit of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and the search for the perfect scream are imaginatively invoked here as well. Strickland constructs a convincing case for sound as a dominant, almost subliminal force in our experience of the movies, all while entertainingly deconstructing the very process by which that sound is assembled, dissolving the audience’s complicity into magnetic particles of horror which begin tightening around and threatening to absorb Gilderoy. But unlike in Blow Out, that perfect scream which somehow synthesizes frivolous art with inescapable humanity proves elusive. Within the walls of the Berberian Sound Studio there are only fading echoes, the blinding light of the projector bulb washing out everything in its throw, reels of tape spinning out of focus, and the final click of a switch signaling escape into the dark.

(Berberian Sound Studio is available on DVD and Blu-ray and is now streaming on Netflix.)

Friday, October 30, 2015


If you scroll down this page, you'll find currently posted, in honor of Halloween week, what I think are two very special treats (and possibly tricks). The first is a very challenging frame grab quiz in which readers are asked to guess the titles of 31 movies based on eerie images that may or may not be so easy to identify. The other is a special edition of the traditional interview-type quiz I occasionally come up devoted entirely to the harrowing and delightful world of horror. It features the usual batch of questions for which there are no wrong answers, only your answers, which makes it much more fun to fill out and especially to read. As usual, it’s taking me a while to get around to submitting my own answers to the quiz, but in the creeping shadow of the approaching holiday I thought I’d take a shot at answering one here:
At what moment did you realize you were a horror fan? (Or what caused you to realize you weren’t?)

Well, it should be apparent by now that the second half of this poser is not applicable. It really does feel as though I’ve been a fan of monster movies and the horror genre for as far as my increasingly feeble memory stretches back. I don’t know if here was a specific moment or not, but when I think back on the possible origins of my interest I think there are probably two factors that converged that really helped to seal the deal for me, as they probably did for many my age. (A tail-end baby-boomer, I was born in 1960.)

My mom bought me my very first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland when I was probably around seven years old. Famous Monsters was a publication any good horror fan of a certain age (and hopefully much younger) recognizes as an essential and seminal influence on the sensibility on an entire generation’s love for the horror genre. It certainly was that for me. Edited by one Forrest J. Ackerman (pictured above), a science-fiction and horror enthusiast of the first order (he coined the term “sci-fi,” for crying out loud), FM, as my pals and I came to refer to it, was a real gateway drug into understanding and appreciating the enduring landmarks as well as the endless marginalia scattered throughout the history of the horror genre.

Within its pages I first learned of and became fascinated by men with strange names like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, monsters like Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course all the nightmares they would inspire. But I think the thing that I probably most responded to, the thing that kept me coming back, is that Ackerman and his writers knew how to appeal to that hungry interest that can be cultivated in kids without ever seeming to have talked down to that audience. The copy of a typical article, and especially the captions accompanying the treasure trove of stills each new issue offered, were often groan-inducing but also endearing, almost like a new language devised just for the readership of Famous Monsters, which Ackerman would always remind us was published in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. Yet there was serious love for the subject infused into every sentence, a whole world of monsters and mayhem just waiting to be revealed.

(For more on Famous Monsters of Filmland and Forrest J. Ackerman, I refer you to pieces I posted on SLIFR in honor of Ackerman's 90th birthday in 2006 and the day back in 1998 when I did a pilgrimage to the Ackermansion itself.)
And because of the interest sparked by Mr. Ackerman’s mag, I was perfectly primed at the elementary school age for the arrival of Dark Shadows. No messing around on the playground for me after class left out-- every afternoon I would race home in order to make it home in time to see the latest installment in Dan Curtis’ groundbreaking horror-themed soap opera. I’d heard murmurings about it at school and began watching just as Barnabas Collins, my generation’s very own vampire hero, was being introduced to spice up the show’s viscous gothic atmosphere (to say nothing of the sagging ratings that viscous atmosphere was inspiring). The combination of a daily infusion of daytime horror, consumed in the brightly lit living room of my house in Citrus Heights, California, and all the background knowledge and infectious enthusiasm I was eagerly absorbing through the pages of Famous Monsters every month cemented the foundation of an everlasting love for all things monster in this boy’s life.

When my parents moved us from Citrus Heights, California back to Oregon and my hometown of Lakeview, Oregon when I was about eight years old, I was allowed to go to the movies much more frequently than I ever was when we lived in the big, bad suburbs of Sacramento. And among all the other treats my hometown theater offered, I was lucky enough to see many memorable horror movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, usually featured as one-night-only engagements to mark Friday the 13th, New Year’s Eve and, of course, Halloween. These were the movie nights I waited for, the movie nights I lived for, and considering I wasn’t living in an urban center but instead in a little cow town in Southern Oregon, I was extremely lucky to be able to see great, gruesome, 100% fun stuff like The Devil’s Own, The Green Slime, Rasputin the Mad Monk, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, The House That Screamed, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Dunwich Horror and countless others amongst other screaming kids like myself on the big screen. (The scary one-mile walk home down darkened streets after one of these shows was a scary treat all its own.)

My excitement whenever my friends and I got to see one of these shows, which were sometimes double features even, could barely be contained. I remember one night, during a showing of The Return of Count Yorga, being so caught up in the thrill of seeing Robert Quarry lunging down a hallway in slow motion toward his intended victim that I turned to yell at the kids behind me—“Did you see that?! Did you see that?!”—and ended up missing most of the juicy stuff that happened when he made it to the end of the hall. And one Friday the 13th screening of The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck was made particularly memorable when a bat that had apparently found a sleeping spot high in the rafters behind the screen decided to take a mid-movie buzz through the auditorium. The closest thing to a riot my hometown ever saw ensued. (Or at least that’s the way this panicked kid remembers it.)

But the all-time best Halloween night horror show at my hometown theater happened when the 1972 Amicus production of Tales from the Crypt came to town. This was a special engagement which was highly anticipated, at least by me-- I’d been seeing the ads for the movie in the Portland Oregonian for quite a while, and that screaming skull with the eyeball inserted in an otherwise cleaned-out socket sold me on the movie from my very first glimpse. The rowdy house was packed for a night of horror, and the madness of the crowd made hearing the movie sometimes difficult, but I was so excited that I tried not to care-- I was seeing Tales from the Crypt! The din had started long before the opening curtain parted, and it continued to increase, relentlessly, seemingly without regard to what was happening on screen. (As I think back on it, I often wonder if I was the only one in the house that night who actually cared what was going on in the movie itself.)

And finally, when some sort of projectile flew out of the crowd and landed very close to the screen, the owner of the theater had had enough. I noticed him as he marched slowly, deliberately, to the front of the theater, while the movie and the lunatics in this particular asylum continued to squirm and shout and laugh and scream. Suddenly the lights came up, the movie stopped and everyone went silent. The theater owner wordlessly surveyed the crowd from the front of the screen, just a few rows away from where my carcass was parked. “What I have before me, on the floor of the auditorium,” he intoned ominously, as if taking his fearsome cue from Sir Ralph Richardson's Cryptkeeper himself, “is a fresh egg.” Someone had apparently smuggled some fowl projectiles, perhaps intended to be chucked at someone’s house or car later, into the theater, and in the wild fervor of the moment that someone had let one fly. The theater owner berated the audience for their behavior and threatened to shut the screening down entirely, with no refunds, if decorum wasn’t restored immediately. He even yelled out at one poor bastard who was still cutting up during this frightening speech—“You! In the balcony! I know it was you who threw it!” Even though I wasn’t causing trouble myself, I was terrified. (I could only laugh about it later). But I was also secretly glad because, goddamn it, I couldn’t hear the movie, and the last thing I would have wanted was for the owners of the theater to suddenly decide that it wasn’t worth the trouble and pull the plug on these horror holiday special shows, which I considered a major perk and a significant antidote to the doldrums of citizenship in my hometown.

There was one added extra bonus to the night, however. The movie was nearing its end, the audience now sufficiently calmed and, I imagine, sated with fear, inspired both by the movie and by the Man. One of the ushers, a hoity-toity high school girl a few years older than most of us who could be heard throughout the movie making fun of the movie when she passed by with her flashlight, was making her last rounds. On screen the Cryptkeeper had already hurled the movie’s stars down into the pit to hell, but hardly satisfied with the evening’s haul of souls, he proceeded to intone to the now-empty chamber in which he sat, “Who will be next?” Then a brief pause. At that moment the usher, imagining herself to be the pinnacle of wit, replied for all the house to hear, “Me!” And before she could peel off a snarky laugh, Richardson turned to the camera (and, of course, to the usher) and uttered with actorly relish, “Perhaps you?!” The usher actually screamed and ran out to the lobby, providing the greatest non-rehearsed interactive ending to a horror movie I’ve ever been witness to. And for those of us who always lived under a cloud of constant condescension from people who thought horror movies were stupid, bad for you or otherwise beneath contempt, it was an especially satisfying end to a very raucous and memorable night.

You probably (hopefully!) have stories like these of your own, if you’re my age. And though they’re unlikely to capture that same frisson of chills and discovery the Halloween show of or youth held for budding monster fans, if you keep your eyes and ears open there are still plenty of great Halloween-themed horror shows programmed annually in theaters which could possibly inspire you to get off your couch on this annual night of fright. Here in Los Angeles alone you can catch these treats (no tricks) this coming weekend: the annual All-Night Horror Show at the New Beverly Cinema, a 12-hour marathon made up of six rare feature films along with an assortment of trailers, cartoons and shorts, all of which remain a delicious secret until they are unveiled on screen; Geto Boy rapper Bushwick Bill providing a running rap commentary over his favorite horror flick, the original 1988 Chucky classic Child’s Play, at the Cinefamily; and Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris, introducing a double bill of The Bride of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein at the newly reopened Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. All that is just tonight.

Back at the Cinefamily you can see William Castle's The Tingler, complete with the seat-buzzing Percepto gimmick, screening twice on Halloween afternoon, and then on Halloween night the New Beverly has a great night of black-and-white horror featuring Curse of the Demon, Carnival of Souls  and, at midnight, Night of the Living Dead.

And speaking of Sara Karloff, she and Bela Lugosi Jr., son of the great Bela Lugosi, were on hand for a showing of the relatively underappreciated Son of Frankenstein (1939) last night at the splendiferous Alex Theater in downtown Glendale which I was grateful to be able to attend. The event was hosted by current Famous Monsters of Filmland editor David Weiner and sponsored by the Alex Film Society, and a better (egg-free) preparation for Halloween it could not have been. Karloff and Lugosi were clearly honored and excited to be promoting the legacy of their famous parents, even if one felt they might have been rehashing the same stories from countless similar appearances, and they lent the evening a suitable gravitas to go along with the spirited fun.
The movie itself is far more entertaining than its reputation as a mere sequel would suggest. Karloff may have been tiring of appearing as the Monster by this point, but it doesn’t show in his performance. This great actor remains committed in Son of Frankenstein to the pathos of his creation while perhaps keeping more attuned to the Monster’s rage the third time around, as well as to a sense of gallows humor—the moment when he considers tossing the unbearable moppet Donnie Dunagan into a roiling pit of sulfur, before sadly deciding against it, is truly delicious.
And Lugosi turns in what might be his best performance here as the wronged, but still clearly psychotic Igor, his neck having been broken in a botched attempt by enraged villagers to hang him and whose impulse toward vengeance spurs the Monster’s worst behavior. His contemptuous hearing before the council that once attempted to execute him is a masterful bit of comic/tragic acting, and it’s a shame he never really got the chance to shine like this on the screen again during the remainder of his career.

Meanwhile, Basil Rathbone and four-star character actor Lionel Atwill as, respectively, the conflicted son of the Monster’s creator and the local police inspector who suspects new foul play at Castle Frankenstein, carry the dramatic proceedings right up to the edge of parody without ever tipping over. A friend of mine recently described their richly pleasurable performances here as “plummy,” and I can’t possibly top that description. It is enormous fun watching this movie, which provided the basic template for the plot and many of the comedic touchstones of Young Frankenstein (1974), and realizing how closely Kenneth Mars’ hilarious performance as the village inspector in Mel Brooks’ movie is related to what Lionel Atwill does here, right down to the darts jammed into the gendarme’s wooden arm during a tense standoff between the inspector and the not-quite-mad doctor.

Son of Frankenstein was a joy to watch unfold on the magnificent Alex screen last night, in the presence of friends and my oldest daughter, who loves the monster classics just like her dad. It was a Halloween show to live on with my memories of the great ones of my youth, though thankfully less raucous, and hopefully it’s one that she’ll remember with fondness in the same way I remember those Halloween nights at my local show house. So to return to the original question, that’s how I realized that I’m a horror fan, and why the genre and its rich history continues to mean so much to me. Here’s hoping if it means the same to you that you’ll find your way to a monster classic and a suitably terrifying Halloween night this year too.