There seems to have been an unexpected enthusiasm about Halloween this year around our house and around the neighborhood which, in addition to the kid-centric holiday falling on a Saturday, seems to have added a certain happier dimension to its celebration than in past years, as I remember them anyway. It was nice to be able to spend the day with my girls decorating the front of the house-- even though our decorations were meager by the standards of some of the other nearby houses, they were downright garish and pagan placed alongside the majority of them which, it being a neighborhood of older retirement-age folks for the most part, noted their participation in the spirit of the evening mostly by leaving their porch lights on. And though the expected downturn in the number of those houses who usually grab the holiday by its prickly tail was apparent—the neighborhood haunted houses that can be counted on to go all out were a little more subdued this year, no doubt because of the tightness of everyone’s budget—there was a marked uptick in volume of candy distribution, if my daughters’ trick-or-treat bags can be counted as representative samples. My youngest couldn’t even carry her bag home. (We picked through the 25% of really good stuff and donated the rest to the needy coworkers in my office who will, as it turns out, consume even Willy Wonka Fun Dip with only the slightest hesitation.)
Halloween 2009 just seemed like more fun this year, and there are three reasons I can think of that might help to explain why.
I DISCOVERED THAT MY KIDS LOVE THE UNIVERSAL MONSTERS
This was the year the girls found out about the Universal Studios monsters in their element, and it was due mostly to getting to see Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein on the big screen a couple of weeks ago. The movie couldn’t be more kid-friendly, and yet it packs a few moments within and in between comedy bits that a young audience could conceivably rank as scary. Not only did my daughters eat up the adventures of Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello) avoiding these creepies, they also found the creatures themselves compelling. They knew not from wolfsbane and the seductive menace of Bela Lugosi before this past October. But now they’re ready for the real thing. I took my daughter to see Tod Browning’s Dracula at the New Beverly just a week later, and she was shivering and hiding her eyes from Lugosi’s piercing stare like it was 1931. I’m not sure why, but classic comedies from this period (Duck Soup, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth), and now the slow-paced insinuating horrors spawned by the Universal backlot, have managed to pierce the attention-deficit shield constructed by video games, manga and the other more modern action movies she also loves and improbably found a place in her heart. I have promised to screen the entire Frankenstein series for her next—James Whale’s original, most assuredly the The Bride of Frankenstein, and then Son, House and Ghost, with a special place reserved for one of my favorites, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman-- unless we get really lucky and some of them show up on the big screen again soon. And given all this interest, it might just be time to break out the old monster model kits.
I WAS REMINDED THAT IT’S GOOD TO REVISIT THE CLASSICS (AND SOME NOT-SO-CLASSICS TOO)
I had the opportunity to look at several movies during the Halloween month that I either remembered fondly from my horror-loving boyhood or had never fully warmed to the way others had seemed to, and the results were a little bit surprising. I spent a long time enjoying the anticipation of digging into the delights offered on MGM HD’s “Dying for the Weekend” series of horrors, because there were a couple of old favorites in there as well as a couple I’d never run across before. But the cruel fact is, I just wasn’t able to see everything I wanted to see from their line-up. (And when, in the history of my film-watching or anyone else’s, has this truism ever not been a truism?) And it was a disappointment to discover that one of the pictures I was most looking forward to seeing again, The Return of Count Yorga, was a bit of a wet noodle. The first movie was an important movie in the development of my taste for modern horror films and I still think it stands up pretty well today. But the sequel, which I characterized from my memory as “very good” in the article previously linked, turned out, to these eyes which are 37 years older than when they first gazed up on it, to be somewhat sleepily paced and far too dependent on a bevy of nightgown-clad vampire brides infected by what appears to be a plague of rampant bed hair lurching at the camera and smacking their oversized dime-store vampire fangs. Robert Quarry as the titular count seems disinterested here too—he should be out ravaging early ‘70s party types, but instead he spends the entire movie pining for the bland Mariette Hartley, an unappreciative recipient of Yorga’s attentions who also ends up on the receiving end of the movie’s shock ending, wholly warmed-over and gender-flipped as it is directly from the first film.
Much more enjoyable was Grave of the Vampire, a movie I never gave much of a chance when I was growing up and scouring the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle, because the ads looked so cheap and unpromising. But the movie has a certain crude power, is relatively well made (by John Hayes, an exploitation director responsible for titles like Up Yours—A Rockin’ Comedy, All the Lovin’ Kinfolk, Mama’s Dirty Girls, Jailbait Babysitter and Hot Lunch) from a script by David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and is not just a little bit mean and punchy to boot. Michael Pataki plays Croft, a notorious vampire who rises one night to terrorize and drain the blood of a boy and his girlfriend, and then proceeds to drag the girl screaming into an open grave where he proceeds to rape her. The girl, improbably, survives the ordeal and gives birth to a son who has no taste for milk but certainly enjoys the drippage when Mom accidentally cuts herself while mounting another doomed breastfeeding attempt. Up to this point (about a third of the way through), the movie has a certain mournfulness to it, and well as a creeping morbidity that is unusual and affecting. But then Grave takes a hard left past the logistical booby traps one would think would be inherent in growing up a vampire and jumps straight to the boy’s adult life where, against all likelihood, he turns into lantern-jawed exploitation star William Smith. Smith, none too happy about the way Dad treated Mom or about his own undead situation (which the movie sets aside until its gory conclusion), has tracked down the bloodsucking patriarch—he’s teaching night classes on the occult!—and is out for some stake-in-the-heart-type payback. Grave of the Vampire remains engaging largely because of Pataki’s barely contained contempt for the daylight dwellers that surround him—he’s actually pretty damn good in this role—and for the juice and surprising cruelty the filmmakers bring to their own tawdry premise. It doesn’t really add up to much, but in terms of the drive-in fare amongst which it was spawned and ran in the mid ‘70s, it’s a fang or two above the usual fare.
Even better is the 1971 Hammer entry Twins of Evil, another of the studios “expansions” upon the J. Sheridan LeFanu story “Carmilla” which, in addition to the original Dracula novel, also stoked the fires (if you will, and I insist) of rather more openly erotic Hammer vampire films such as The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, among countless others. Here Le Fanu’s ageless and undying Carmilla is resurrected just long enough to pass along her undead thirst to one Count Karnstein (the insinuatingly effective Damien Thomas, whose manner reminds me of no one more than Corey Feldman). Karnstein casts a black pall of hedonistic intimidation over the citizens of a small village, most of whom despise him but cannot bring themselves to oppose him for fear not only of his alleged Satanism, but also—and perhaps more immediately of concern—his connections to the country’s ruling government. One of the few not intimidated is Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), leader of a local group of religious zealots called the Brotherhood, who spend their free time accusing sexually alluring women of witchcraft and then burning them alive in order to save their souls. Weil senses trouble immediately when his twin nieces from the city (played with not just a little sexual allure by Mary and Madeleine Collinson, hot off their tour as Playboy’s first duplicate Playmates) arrive for an extended visit. Maria is sweet and compliant with her uncle’s restrictive demands regarding their behavior, but Frieda recoils from him immediately and is soon sneaking out of her bedroom window and up the hill toward Castle Karnstein, where she soon discovers that nights in the country can be pretty lively too. It has been noted that Cushing had lost his beloved wife Helen not long before shooting began on this picture, and it’s genuinely moving to know of his personal anguish and see Cushing grapple with the humanity in his tyrannical, unsympathetic character. His behavior is abominable, but you don’t for a minute discount his conviction as simple demagoguery—Weil is frightening because he believes in the terror he and his “brothers” unleash on the community spun out of little but their own fears. And when he is finally confronted with evidence that his zealous persecution of Karnstein, who he sees as just another transgressor, is grounded in actual, as opposed to imagined horrors, his own sins come seeping into his visage like spiritual sewage. Twins of Evil (the lurid jokiness of its reference to Hammer’s typical heaving cleavage quotient finally given literal as well as lascivious expression) is a first-rate vampire tale, one of the studio’s best, and Cushing’s performance takes it deeper, into the shadowy territory where religious hysteria and intolerance intersect with the collateral damage of familial consequences. Beside his work as the terribly wronged and poetically justified Arthur Grimsdyke in 1972’s Tales from the Crypt, this may be his best performance.
Finally, I caught up with three pictures, none of which I had seen in probably 20 years, one of which I dismissed as a failure when it was first released, and found that all three were, to these aged eyes, solid horror movies in their own right. Blacula (1972) bucks all the odds and wrings some genuine fright out of a potentially preposterous premise—an African prince (William Marshall) is condemned to eternal thirst by a plantation-owning Count Dracula and is resurrected in present-day Los Angeles where he goes all Ardeth Bay in search of the reincarnation of his beautiful princess bride (and yes, I too would rise from the dead for Vonetta McGee). Anchored by Marshall’s utterly straightforward performance, Blacula sidesteps the occasional embarrassing stereotypes (blacks, gays and honkies will all avert their eyes over various bits) and manages to get to a surprising depth of feeling amongst the scares. The undead sacrifice that ends the movie goes after the same sort of emotional heft that Anne Rice occasionally reached for, but it would hardly count as sacrilege to suggest that Blacula does it better.
It was really nice to see Child’s Play again after so long and discover that—and again, we’re talking about overcoming a potentially preposterous premise—a movie about a doll possessed by the soul of a raging killer works some real magic in the goose bump department. The screening, at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater, was augmented by a terrific Q&A panel moderated by screenwriter Mike Werb (Face/Off, The Mask, Firehouse Dog). Guests included the film’s principal writer Don Mancini (who wrote the film’s four sequels and directed Seed of Chucky), producer David Kirschner, special effects designer Kevin Yagher and the film’s star, Catherine Hicks. The discussion ranged from the origins of Mancini’s concept, to the difficulty of executing the movie’s complicated animatronic effects, to finding love on the set (Hicks and Yagher met there and have been married for 15 years), to the tricks and traps of playing such a potentially campy concept utterly straight, right on through to working with children, specifically the convincing work done by Child’s Play’s Alex Vincent, who finds himself the focus of Chucky’s campaign of terror. Kirschner and Mancini were particularly enlightening on the subject of how difficult it is to shepherd a project, even one with as much initial enthusiasm as this one had, through the production system while maintaining resemblance to the script’s original concepts. And Mancini got the evening’s biggest laugh--When asked by a member of the audience to elaborate to what he had up his sleeve for the proposed Child’s Play remake to return the franchise, which had become notoriously irreverent and satirical in its last two chapters, to its frightening roots, Mancini waited a beat then simply replied, with an impish grin, “No.” If Hollywood teaches us anything, it is the value of keeping secrets. But on the strength of seeing Child’s Play on the big screen again (not far from where I saw it in Westwood on is original release), Chucky unleashed in 2010 in full-on terror mode ought to be something grand and gory to behold.
Finally, on a whim one night as I cruised down the aisle at my local Vons, I noticed a copy of John Carpenters Christine (1985) on the shelf for $5.99. Added attraction: inside was a coupon for $7.50 toward the purchase of a ticket to see Zombieland. Gee, depending on where you see it that’s a little over half price to see a big, new hit. Combine that with the rock-bottom price of the DVD and the fact that I hadn’t seen Christine since I dismissively sniffed at it the night it opened, and there’s a deal I just couldn’t pass up. I remembered Carpenter’s conception of the Stephen King story as being turgid and overly literal-minded in 1985, too lightly sketched in compared to the rich excessive pleasures of King’s bloated but undeniably exciting novel. But it’s been 24 years since I read that novel too, so what bothered me about what Carpenter either left out or couldn’t convey is certainly less in the forefront of my mind now, and without those concerns I found the movie to be streamlined and compelling, and blessedly free of the smash-cut-gasp-and-run techniques of the modern horror film. This might just be Carpenter’s most visually confident and arresting movie, in terms of composition and in terms of patience—there are some beautiful long takes in Christine that orchestrate dread and suspense like nothing else the director managed since The Thing in 1982. And again, the pleasure of seeing effects executed in real time and space is exemplified in this movie’s approach t the tactile seductiveness of Christine herself. We can completely relate as Arnie (Keith Gordon) steps back from his beloved vehicle, which has just been trashed by the requisite band of thugs, whispers “Show me,” and stares in awe as Christine, through the pre-CGI magic of physical effects, reconstitutes herself before our eyes. This sequence is perhaps even more impressive in 2010 than it was 1985 because we know, in a neat reversal of CGI's tendency to throw us out of a given sequence by literalizing the impossible, that somehow the effects whizzes at work here did it in physical space.
As for the casting, just about everybody, especially those thugs (led by William Ostrander, who was 26 when the movie came out) look at least 10-15 years too old to be high school kids. But John Stockwell and Keith Gordon have an interesting rapport, especially at the beginning. As one who was often the beneficiary of friendly behavior from those outside and above my social standing in high school, it’s nice and believable to see Stockwell’s football star and the pitch-perfect mixture of disdain and respect, embarrassment and relaxation he evinces in his relationship with Gordon’s Arnie. Gordon often overdoes the nerdy clumsiness at the beginning of the film, but he nails the desperation and the alienation from his well-meaning but often hostile and overbearing family. When his new girlfriend finally casts her spell, all that previously tamped-down hostility is transferred to Arnie’s headlights (no longer shielded by the giant plastic frames of his glasses), and we can see by Gordon’s contemptuous stare than everything he perceives is colored not only by that hostility, but also by his auto-erotic connection with Christine. It’s a shaky performance at times, but ultimately a satisfying one. Christine’s supporting cast is also better than I ever gave them credit for, headed by Robert Prosky as a delightfully profane garage owner, and filled out by the demented duo of all-American eccentricity of Roberts Blossom and Harry Dean Stanton—if only Tracey Walter had shown up, it would have made for the ultimate whack job hat trick. Carpenter can’t figure out how to sell the ending of Christine, and its confrontation between Arnie, Christine and Stockwell operating a giant earth mover, like Sigourney Weaver at the end of Aliens but sans anything like the maternal subtext of that movie to offset the fundamental silliness of the imagery, ends up unavoidably flat. But the director tweaks everything with a terrific final image and a line, delivered by the movie’s oh-so-‘80s ingénue, Alexandra Paul, that will make you giggle while you shiver.
I REALIZED THE $12 I SPENT ON MY HALLOWEEN COSTUME LAST YEAR IS THE BEST INVESTMENT I’VE EVER MADE
I always thought my Tor Johnson mask was the shit. But have you ever tried walking around in one of these heavy latex bastards for an hour? Recommended only if you like hyperventilating and/or accidentally slurping up your own condensed sweat from the inside of the mask. Believe me, two air holes where the nose goes ain’t enough. Nah, I can’t say enough about traipsing around the neighborhood like a life-size Der Weinerschnitzel escapee. You get lots of candy offers, lots of laff-laden compliments, and the awe of your kids, who can’t believe they have such a weird dad but are secretly glad (on a night like this) that they do.