Saturday, October 30, 2010


Joe Dante’s The Hole (from a script by Mark L. Smith) doesn’t explode off the screen like a Gremlins firecracker or dabble in gory genre-referential antics in the way that made The Howling and Piranha such high-end, low-down fun. And there’s little evidence in this latest film of Dante the satirist who created such tonally disparate films as Small Soldiers, Matinee and The Second Civil War with a spirit of liberal social engagement that makes watching them feel like discovering a really well-spiked punchbowl. It has been observed that Dante, one of the movies’ most naturally, piquantly visual filmmakers (Gremlins 2: The New Batch felt like a great, feature-length Mort Drucker panel), makes movies that already feel as though they’re in 3D. So why bother? Dante answers that question by choosing to use the newly vibrant technology on a small-scaled story (boiled down to its essentials, it’s Three Kids and a Creepy Basement) which allows him to explore 3D not so much as an effects-enhancement tool but one which can be used to expand the boundaries of the story’s emotional pull. (Fans of Dante’s penchant for referencing other films needn’t worry, though; at least one joke involving a certain glove-bound Peter Lorre movie had the audience I saw it with chuckling with appreciation.)

Dante has often spoken of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder as a major influence on how to take what is essentially a chamber piece and artistically enhance it so that the 3D brings out elements of character and emotion that might not have been so direct or accessible otherwise. Here Dante takes a ‘80s horror movie template (the movie The Hole most facilely resembles is the 1987 low-budget hit The Gate) and lends his directorial authority, his mastery of space and pace and the frame, and now what quaintly used to be referred to as "stereovision," to enrich the film’s basic structure. The story involves two young boys and their overworked mother (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble are the boys, Teri Polo is the mom) who have made another in a series of apparently frequent moves, this time into an old house in a small town that the oldest boy (Massoglia) finds unbearably dull. They eventually meet up with a girl from next door (Haley Bennett) and the three of them discover a locked passage which, when opened, reveals an apparently bottomless hole in the basement from which all manner of fearful things, seemingly directly related to each of the children’s most profound fears, begin to emerge.

But more so than with the references and inspiration of other directors and films, I was struck by the way the movie beautifully resonates with one of Dante’s own movies-- Explorers. Both share a dark, often cluttered yet somehow shimmering color palette and a slightly heightened reality--the steps down to that basement never seemed so long as when there’s a ghastly, cackling jester doll at the foot of the stairs, just like the hometown vistas of Explorers, on which a drive-in movie theater seems surrounded by nothing but the most beautiful of night blue. The sullen, introspective Dane, as played by Chris Massoglia, seems a direct descendant of Jason Presson’s troubled Darren, who in Explorers gets involved with a scheme to build a homemade spaceship and send it off in search of the source of a series of strange interstellar signals as a reasonable alternative to spending another night at home with his alcoholic father who, it can reasonably be presumed, indulges in a regular schedule of violent, emotional abuse. There are even images in The Hole that resonate for me with the perversely funny conclusion of Explorers, when our earnest post-Spielbergian heroes realize they been called on their adventure by a couple of alien kids who know nothing of Earth culture other than what they’ve picked up from TV transmissions floating in the void. The party is crashed by a rampaging monster who resembles the alien kids, but who is even bigger than they are. The creature is back-lit, framed by a giant doorway, and he flails his multiple arms in an angry display that confuses everyone but Darren, who recognizes the parental rage right away. “He’s their dad,” he mutters with bemusement, as all remnants of the glowing Spielberg vision of alien visitation delightfully crumble into space dust. The Hole turns that moment of bittersweet comic recognition into a terrifying tableaux from which Dane must escape with his dignity and his sanity intact.

Leave it to Dante to achieve, with funds approximately equal to that of Avatar’s toilet paper budget, what James Cameron, for all of his movie’s overwhelming immersive grandeur, could not—he takes a story which in other hands could have come off as dangerously thin and imbued it with an impish illusion of depth that comes to mirror that of his characters. And there’s something about the way Dante stages the characters moving around in their environments—that basement full of dark corners and barely illuminated objects which might not be what you think they are, but also the more genial, everyday ones like a kitchen or a bedroom, or simply a small-town street—that allows you to experience those environments not as 3D stunts but as something approaching natural, in the way that the eye experiences objects in three-dimensional space. Cameron achieved this too, but there was always something just a little too dazzling and computer-generated going on to constantly remind you (if those 10-ton glasses didn’t already) that for all of its Z-axis verisimilitude, Avatar was just a movie. The most complimentary thing I can think to say about The Hole is that, in the scenes not designed to showcase the technology, it’s easy to forget that the movie is in 3D. But unlike, say, Wes Craven, whose My Soul to Take betrayed no awareness of how to use 3D to the story’s advantage (or much awareness of anything else, like being scary, for that matter), Dante seduces the viewer into an intimacy with these characters—we really do feel as though we are somehow sharing their space— by using the stereoptic qualities of the image to heighten our response not only to the mounting horror, but also to how the characters live their daily lives. This sensitivity to the relatively mundane works joyous wonders on making the grand 3D moments even more effective. It also helps that Dante displays astonishing acuity with the 3D image-- The Hole was staged and shot in 3D; no chintzy conversion job, this. And because we haven’t been constantly dodging Ping-Pong balls and other objects flying at us for the first half hour, when a particular 3D image resonates, it does so in a big way. For instance, the moment we stumble upon the lair of Bruce Dern is a real eye-popper. Dern is the requisite town oddball with more knowledge of that hole than one would think safe. He also seems to be haunted by his own hole-inspired fear, that of the dark, which is why he lives in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of lamps. Our first exposure to this glittering, haunted warehouse has some of the same effect as seeing hundreds of fireflies flitting before your eyes—the lamps seem to go on forever—which just makes it more chilling when they suddenly all turn off.)

It seems that gazing into that basement hole leaves one susceptible to one’s emotional closets being cleaned and the fears contained therein being trotted out for a final showdown. At precisely the point where the air usually begins to leak out of similar movie enterprises, Dante manages to invest his movie with the kind of emotional urgency that should be the envy of but seems quite beyond most of the current crop of Hollywood shockmeisters. Bennett ends up climbing the tall tower of a dilapidated roller coaster to confront the demon that most plagues her, and the sequence is genuinely unnerving; the imagery has a primal terror to it that is made richer by the use of 3D, and by Dante’s sensitivity to how 3D can be used to accentuate not just depth, but height. Yet the sequence is triply effective because we never lose sight of why that climb is so important to Bennett’s character, a tribute to Dante’s mastery not just of technology but of inspired storytelling. And the movie’s climactic sequence, in which Massoglia faces down his greatest fear—the one that has kept his family on the move from city to city for so long—Dante finds ways to employ dazzling puzzle-logic imagery to make us feel as though we were seeing how a terrified, and newly empowered boy might envision the interior of his own confused mind.

The Hole belongs in American cinemas—it premiered to acclaim and solid box-office in Britain and all over Europe this past fall. Yet the very 3D technology that assured it would be made has now become a hindrance, not so much in securing a distribution deal (of which it has none as of this writing) as in finding screens on which to play it. In the time between the movie’s conception as a 3D project and its completion, the post-Avatar glut of 3D product (and most of it is truly mere product, not movie magic) hit its zenith, making it difficult for an unassuming horror movie like The Hole a technologically enabled place to spin its tale. One can only hope that with European exposure (including raves at the Venice Film Festival) and occasional screenings like the one where I saw it, as the closing night attraction of a 3D film festival here in Los Angeles last month, word will begin to circulate about the quality of this picture and some executive with as much movie love as business savvy will get it to the marketplace as soon as possible. It has been described as modest, and compared to many of the bloated movies that do find themselves on a release schedule, I suppose it is. But modesty has been taken as a signifier, even in some of the movie's most positive notices, of second-tier achievement. The Hole is not a game-changer; it will not redefine cinema. What The Hole is, however, is not only a reminder of how much fun it can be to work up a serious crop of goose pimples; it’s also a reminder, especially for the suits in power, that Joe Dante is still making wonderful movies and that someone who is as talented as this guy shouldn’t have to wait seven years in between projects, only to find his latest afloat in exhibition limbo. The movie is flat-out terrific, capable of sending chills down the spines of youngsters and the not-so-young-as-all-that-anymore—my 10-year-old daughter was as riveted as I was—and it really should be playing this Halloween at a theater near you.

Joe Dante on the set of The Hole

The latest trailer for The Hole



At this late date there is no point in reviewing The Human Centipede. Once you’ve heard about its central premise from an incensed or smugly delighted reviewer, or from an over-enthusiastic Blockbuster employee, there is no reason whatsoever for actually seeing the movie other than curiosity over what the titular creation will actually look like or what attendant grotesqueries might accompany the successful completion of Dr. Heiter’s (looks like Hitler!) foul experiment. Certainly writer-director Tom Six displays no apparent filmmaking talent other than that of making sure the words and pictures make it to the screen. He hasn’t concocted a story that moves anywhere beyond the predictable beats of humiliation, disfigurement and gastrointestinal debasement; once the good doctor’s abomination emerges from the operating theater, all there is to occupy one’s wasted time is to notice the incessant (muffled) moaning and screaming of the victims; Dieter Laser’s singular redefinition of overacting; just how coyly Six keeps his actors covered in just the places where one would think a true fuck-you filmmaker would revel in the rough stitches and pulled, suppurating flesh; and the long, long wait until the local none-too-bright authorities begin to suspect foul play in that isolated modern house on the edge of the woods. I’m usually not one to dabble in generalities, but I can’t trust statements that suggest this movie is somehow the artistic fulfillment of/justification for the “torture porn” movement, that it is some kind of wacky masterpiece, or even that there’s something going on metaphorically here which speaks to the upper class and its categorical dehumanization of those unfortunate bastards who can’t play on their social/intellectual/financial level. (I have heard people speak of all these things.)

And I certainly don’t buy L.A. Weekly film editor Karina Longworth’s proclamation of The Human Centipede as “definitive psychological horror” or a “torture-porn game changer” or that it in any way posits anything serious to say about humanity. She writes something like, “In Six's view, the moral imperative to preserve life only goes so far—eventually, death is a relief” as if it were an observation earmarking the film as a horror landmark. Well, the same conclusion was reached in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, a play and film which presumably earns its status as a forgettably earnest ethical drama because in it no one shat themselves and forced the nurse to eat the diaper. She goes on to note Centipede’s undeniably powerful ending as evidence of its correcting of “mainstream horror's bullshit conservative ideology.” But there is plenty of evidence in the history of horror to refute Longworth’s rather narrow-minded condemnation. Frankenstein’s monster dies, only to be reborn in the next movie, in much the same way that Tom Six gleefully assures us that this movie is a mere warm-up for the planned 100% medically accurate shocker sequel still to come. The horror movie, as flexible as it is conversant with its own storytelling traditions, can be conservative, but it can also take you in unexpected directions or leave you by the side of the road. It seems as absurd to me to suggest that only those films in the genre that leave the viewer psychologically scorched and hopeless are the ones to transcend the genre’s limitations as it would be to suggest that the genre needs transcending at all. Shysters like Tom Six make their hipster bed by smearing shit on the audience and laughing when the audience gladly accepts the abuse as evidence of art.

So instead of review the movie (which, in a way, I suppose I just have), I thought it’d be more fun to dial up the commentary track on the DVD and listen to what director Six had to say for himself. Now, just because a director may or may not be articulate about what he has created is no grounds for dismissal or praise of his creation. Films exist as texts that have to be evaluated through a prism of our own knowledge and prejudices certainly, but more definitely by simply what is on the screen. It’s safe to say that someone who finds The Human Centipede a rich allegory of class humiliation is probably seeing things I don’t see; the evaluation of whether those things are there or not is up to the individual viewer or writer to convincingly articulate. But when I listened to the Tom Six commentary on the Human Centipede a few things became clear to me, and I decided to just let Six speak for himself, with as little elaboration or analysis on my part as I could stand to withhold. Early on it becomes clear that Six is one of these DVD commentary hosts who is more than happy to use up time on the track stating or elaborating upon what is obvious on the screen. Within the first three minutes, we see a tracking shot and simultaneously hear Six say, “Um, this is a tracking shot.” Then he clears up something that he must believe has been being gnawing on the audience’s collective mind: “This is the silver-colored Mercedes belonging to Dr. Heiter.” Finally, “Yes, Dieter is wearing my Raybans. You can tell because they are too small for his face!” This is the commentary of a man clearly swept up in the compulsion to make a grand artistic statement about humanity.

There is more, much more, along these lines. But there are also statements in the commentary which I found either unintentionally funny, or revealing, or an inducement to severe eyeball-rolling, often all simultaneously, and they made watching the DVD a second time much more enjoyable than it was sitting through it the first time around listening to the actual soundtrack. Here, then, are 10 pearls of wisdom and observation gleaned from director Tom Six regarding his film The Human Centipede on the film’s DVD commentary track. After this, please don't say I’ve never done anything for you.

1) Over a shot near the opening of the film of a truck driver stopping his vehicle by the side of the road to relieve himself: “This is a nice little scene. Of course, the movie is about shit, and here we have a truck driver taking a shit!”

2) Over shots of the female characters relaxing in their hotel room: “The characters are still very pretty, but that will soon change, as you know.”

3) After relating how the crew ignored local refusal to grant them permits to film on a dark country road: “As a filmmaker, sometimes you have to be a little bad to get what you want.”

4) The director dismisses the nonstop pile-up of horror movie clichés that drive his plot by announcing that they were “deliberate,” and that if the audience thinks they’ve seen it all, then it “makes the impact of what eventually happens way, way better.”

5) Six eventually reveals that the basis of his horror movie “game-changer” came to him one night while he was watching a TV report on a child molester and declared that the guy “should be punished by having his mouth stitched to the ass of a truck driver.”

6) Over a shot of Dr. Heiter exuberantly celebrating the unveiling of his surgical masterpiece by lifting a mirror over his head and gazing at himself with happiness: “This is my homage to The Lion King, when Mufasa lifts Simba to the sky.”

7) Over the scene in which the lead centipede piece finally cannot hold back his excrement: “I’m really proud of this when I see this… Imagine the taste of shit in your mouth, the aftertaste… Imagine your best friend being attached to your ass—of course you would be constipated. You wouldn’t want to go to the bathroom! Poor Jenny. It looks so real…”

8) After noting the appearance of more horror movie clichés near the movie’s conclusion: “But it’s okay, because the rest of it is so not cliché!” (Which begs a question… but I won’t.)

9) “Not everybody understands the black humor. They only see the nasty things. But a lot of people can laugh about this film as well.” (Which begs a question… but I won’t.)

10) "The Human Centipede—First Sequence will look like My Little Pony compared to part two, The Human Centipede—Full Sequence.”


Friday, October 29, 2010


Three from the SCTV vaults for Halloween. First up, the classic episode of Monster Chiller Horror Theater featuring Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes (in 3D!)...

Then, do you dare enter the Doorway to Hell with host Lin Ye Tang?!

Finally, Count Floyd finds a reallllly scary one, kids, which looks like it might be a Swedish import of some kind, perhaps not unlike Let the Right One In… Let’s find out…




There really is no excuse for horror fans looking for new cinematic experiences to go wanting when they have Rupert Pupkin to turn to. Rupert (or at least an incarnation of him who is much more gregarious and pleasant than the one seen in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) has rounded up an epic cast and asked them to contribute a list of their most underrated horror films, and Rupert’s pals have come through in a big way that will make hunting and gathering for chills on your Netflix queue this weekend a much more enjoyable experience. Contributors to this gargantuan project include Rupert himself (List One and List Two), plus:

the Alamo Drafthouse’s Zack Carlson
Jeremy Richey
Peter Peel
The Lightning Bug’s Lair
Cinema du Meep
Cathie Horlick (aka the Cat)
Evan Husney (Severin Films)
Mike Ensley
Marc Edward Heuck
Marty McKee
Death Rattle
The Back of Forest Whitaker’s Neck
Brian Kelley
Hal Horn
and a fella by the name of Joe Dante.

Rupert was kind enough to ask me to contribute too. My list is available at his website, but I’ve also reposted it here (with a new set of nifty screengrabs and posters). I urge to you to visit Rupert’s site, check out all the fantastic suggestions and get in one the discussions. Rupert’s first list alone includes many great choices-- The Body Snatcher, The Car, A Cold Night’s Death, The Island, The Island of Lost Souls, Raising Cain, Shriek of the Mutilated, The Uninvited and Alfredo XZacarias lunatic knock-off of The Swarm entitled—yes, it is!-- The Bees, a movie that sent me and my best friend into such thunderous spasms of laughter we pissed off every around us, who were apparently taking the whole thing far more seriously than we were! I can’t wait to get into the comments thread at Rupert’s place. Thanks to Rupert for making this horror holiday an extra-special treasure trove of terrific terror titles. (I must now lay claim to the prize for All-around Auspicious Achievement in Alliteration). Happy Halloween!


A list of 13 underrated horror films. That was the simple task put before me. It was a tantalizing one. Oh, good, no need to trot out all the usual names that get polished to nice, brassy sheen this time every year on every “Best Horror Films of All Time” list, the proliferation of which in the advent of the blogosphere is a truly mixed blessing. Here was a request for a list of gems that don’t have the reputation they deserve, or are perhaps not as recognized within the fan base of their own genre as they should be. So, “underrated”— a word already pockmarked with qualifications, like parasites on a shark—turns out to be not such a clear-cut concept, and that’s fine. I will simply clarify the qualifications in order to help explain why I chose the films I chose. First, as I said, the films chosen needed to be, in the classic sense of “underrated,” besmirched by a mediocre (or even bad) reputation or otherwise deemed not worthy of a whole lot of discussion in the years following their release. They needn’t have disappeared (few movies, for good or bad, do in these digital days); just a little public indifference will do. But as I was considering titles several popped up which are certainly well-regarded films, but perhaps less celebrated for what they mean to the genre, or the movies they directly influenced, than their more geeked-upon descendants. These I also included, though there will be some readers, even after presumably having gulped down this paragraph on their way to the list itself, who will be inspired to cry, “Yeah, but…!” (Or maybe even "Enough already!") Finally, the only real restriction I put upon myself was that the movies I chose had to come from my own collection, straight off my shelves. No cutting and pasting from wide-ranging and all-inclusive studies of the dankest corners of the horror genre, no sampling from the Netflix Instant Queue in order to make myself seem more acquainted with Brazilian occult slasher films or J-horror or Nunsploitation than I am (which is not very). If I am going to count something underrated, it has to come from a collection of movies that I believe in enough to actually own, movies that are worth risking one’s own gossamer-thin reputation in order to admit loving them. These, then, are 13 underrated horror movies that I would argue for on any holiday, Halloween or Hanukkah or even (shiver) Arbor Day.

Frisky, bloody fun, this is the Hammer franchise that was not to be. In the minus column, a hero whose just a bit too bland. On the plus side, rivers of grue, lots of pulchritude, and a major bonus: Caroline Munro in the nude… a lot!

FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003; David R. Ellis)
Brilliantly clever Rube Goldberg horror contraption starts with a bravura action sequence and never lets up, right up to its gotcha finish. Full of ingenious CGI-enhanced gore, it’s a vast improvement on the pretty good first installment and certainly the peak of the series.

FRAILTY (2001; Bill Paxton)
Here’s a downbeat examination of religious mania that turns the tables on its audience with maximum effectiveness, recasting Old Testament vengeance with frightening and unexpected angles. Directed by and starring Bill Paxton.

If you look beyond the barrel-bottom budget, you’ll see the template for Alien peering out through all the shadows and fog of this top-notch chiller.

THE OMEN (2006; John Moore)
The script is so close to the 1976 version that original scribe David Seltzer retained sole screenwriting credit for this remake, but John Moore’s visual sensibility conjures fresh gooseflesh, enough to give the movie a fearsome personality all its own. Mia Farrow, coming at Mrs. Blalock from a completely different angle, proves just as frightening as Billie Whitelaw’s original incarnation.

OPERA (1987; Dario Argento)
Many had given up on Argento by this point, but for me this may be his most potent, visually arresting, and flat-out terrifying film. It also features what might be the single greatest collection of nerve-shattering close-ups in the history of the movies

ORPHAN (2009; Jaume Collett-Serra)
Dismissed by many as trash bordering on child abuse, this is actually one of the most psychologically acute horror films of the decade, and certainly one of the scariest. Featuring an iconic performance by young actress Isabelle Fuhrman as the manipulative and homicidal nine-year-old Esther—she’s not just a bad seed, she’s the very worst.

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966; John Gilling)
Hammer Films’ finest hour in terms of social allegory is this chiller about a mysterious uprising of the walking dead enslaved by a murderous cult leader. One wonders how much of an acknowledged influence this one was on a certain Mr. Romero.

RAW MEAT (1972; Gary Sherman)
What’s going on down in an abandoned Underground tunnel underneath London’s busy streets? Those who find out don’t live to tell. Gary Sherman’s unexpectedly emotional horror film is a near-masterpiece from a director who never came close to its impact again. Mind the doors!

SEED OF CHUCKY (2004; Don Mancini)
Don Mancini’s fifth chapter in the Chucky series casts an eye on Chucky and his dysfunctional family through a prism of social satire. It’s a subversive horror comedy of much crass energy and creative nerve, and it features a brilliant feat of self-deconstruction from fearless star Jennifer Tilly, who plays a funhouse version of herself.

STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981; Michael Laughlin)
Speaking of deconstruction, Michael Laughlin’s downright weird take on the slasher/mad scientist genres moves to an internal beat unlike any other movie of its kind. It’s so strange, some missed just how smart and funny it is as well. All that, and it’ll inspire you to put Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” on your iPod posthaste too. (Don't worry about that Rex Reed endorsement.)

Mario Bava’s stylish blood-and-guts murder mystery, also known as A Bay of Blood, provides the template for the Friday the 13th series. It’s not unknown or underrated by Bava fans, but it remains outside the experience of many folks who grew up on the Jason Voorhies saga and therefore qualifies as underrated in my book.

THE WOLFMAN (2010; Joe Johnston)
The casting of the atavistic Benicio del Toro as Larry Talbot might seem redundant to some, but he acquits himself well, especially in the unrated director’s version of this overlooked mood piece, which makes more narrative sense and moves at a more satisfying pace, despite being slightly longer than the theatrical version. The movie luxuriates in Hammer-esque atmosphere and up-to-the-minute shocks courtesy Rick Baker and underrated action director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky, Hidalgo).


UPDATE: Long-time blogging friend and cinephile Peter Nellhaus has some excellent choices from Asia that are well off the beaten Hollywood path. You (and I) would be wise to check them out as well. You'll find his extensive list of recommendations and analysis at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Thanks, Peter! The choices just keep on getting better!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page, a.k.a. Man Bait. But in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. They specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare that touched on all tones and subject matter, but found their greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output. They embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable, and their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were directed by Fisher (and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.

Fisher’s somewhat more stately approach to the framing and pacing of his films indeed provided the template to which other directors for Hammer would both adhere and from which they would depart, with varying results from each approach. It’s entirely possible that horror fans of a younger generation than the one I come from might find a movie like Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf entirely too restrained. Seen from the vantage point of 1961’s keepers of morality, the heaving bosoms and generous splashes of blood ensured that this would not the case, of course, at the same time that it kept everyone else glued to the screen. What puts off impatient viewers who are accustomed to the more instant gratification-friendly filmmaking most prevalent in the last 20 years or so is Fisher’s complete sense of control and appreciation of the story’s rather epic perspective, his insistence upon takign the time necessary to tell the story properly. It is, after all, a movie whose ostensible main character, Leon Corledo (Oliver Reed), the recipient of the titular curse, doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour of running time has passed. Fisher’s sure directorial hand conveys more confidence through a single pinky than his contemporaries can muster with both fists, and this confidence serves the storytelling trajectory well. The film begins by recounting the misfortune of a beggar who makes the mistake of intruding on the wedding party of a particularly foul and arrogant marquis. The beggar is tossed into a dungeon, where his sanity slowly slips away after years of imprisonment. The only person who has shown the least sympathy or concern for the beggar’s predicament is the buxom deaf-mute daughter of the marquis’s jailer, but her humanity is soon subjected to the most undeserved of horrors. Assaulted by the marquis after a failed rape, he orders her thrown into the cell with the beggar, who has lost all control over his behavior and his appetites. She is soon raped and impregnated by the animalistic prisoner and, after escaping and murdering the marquis, flees to the forest where she spends the next few months foraging for food and hoping to survive her pregnancy in secrecy.

As suzidoll notes in her thoughtful essay on The Curse of the Werewolf, the movie’s sense of a sprawling, epic narrative is not facilitated some much by splashy budgetary indulgences, but by the depiction of class strata that is fairly typical of British productions. “Issues of class are often part of Hammer’s horror films, either directly in the storyline or subtly through the fates and misfortunes of the characters,” she writes. This is certainly is the case in Curse of the Werewolf, where the poor and unfortunate are made to bear the brunt of the extremities of an aristocracy’s sense of entitlement and sexual rage, thus unleashing forces of evil that end up ravaging the society at large as a result. Indeed, Hammer’s own Plague of the Zombies, which was released five years later, in 1966, nimbly navigates the subject of class-related exploitation in a way that connects it on a line of social horror films from Val Lewton (I Walked with a Zombie) to Wes Craven (The Serpent and the Rainbow).

But in Curse of the Werewolf those class scenarios are infused with the same kind of sexual awareness and symbology that enlivened Hammer’s take on the Dracula legend (also at the hands of Fisher). In just the first phase of this multi-generational tale, the director, working with screenwriter Anthony Hinds, who himself adapted a novel by Guy Endore, lends a ripe, sexualized foundation to this take on the legends of lycanthropy which resonate throughout the film. It is a subtext unfamiliar to the many tales of Larry Talbot’s woes, the ones spun by Universal Studios, of course, but even the most recent incarnation directed by Joe Johnston. Even in those films the werewolf’s anguish has always been entangled with suppressed desire, blood lust and impulses that are at the very least unacceptable, and often hostile to civilized society. But here that traditional subtext, often nearly buried out of sight, is openly discussed, perhaps for the first time in a major genre film. The themes are rather brilliantly woven into the very fabric of the sets (red being both he color of passion and, according to Fisher, the color of fear), the heightened, almost fairy-tale sense of dislocation—this werewolf tale takes place not on the moors, but in early 19th century Spain—and the stirrings of desire that get all tangled up with inexplicable dread. These impulses all find their expression in the impassioned restraint of Fisher’s directorial temper and Arthur Grant’s gorgeous cinematography, itself engorged on the lifeblood of the story and that which is, in the grand Hammer tradition, occasionally spilled or splashed on screen.

The young woman is rescued by a wealthy don of a much more empathetic temperament, but she soon dies in childbirth. However her son, the boy who will grow up to be Oliver Reed, survives and is soon experiencing inexplicable physical compulsions—mysterious patches of hair, an accidental taste of blood which moves from repulsion to sweet attraction and soon to a ravenous thirst— a lycanthrope’s pubescent confusion. He also dreams of running at night and killing like a wolf, and one morning the don discovers the boy in bed, bloodied, soaked with sweat and wounded by the steel ball of a hunter’s rifle. A kindly priest, the kind who often appears in stories like these with a wisdom of the unnatural that always comes in very handy, suggests to the don that the impulses that torment a man who may also be a wolf may be held at bay by the knowledge of being loved, but that the reverse—love’s trampling under the hooves of savage, bestial desire—is also possible. The don rears the boy successfully in a life of familial care until he becomes the grown Leon, who soon finds himself at the mercy of lustful cravings that he doesn’t understand, cravings that have dire consequences for him and the citizens of his village.

Reed is wonderful in the movie—his red-trimmed eyes, in full werewolf mode, spilling tears of anger, frustration and hunger—are seen in terrifying close-up over the movie’s opening credits, an accurate indication of the painful depths which his performance will plumb. And he is well served by Fisher’s fascination with those painful depths. Reed is given room here to create a characterization that collaborates both with the audience’s sympathies and with our desire to luxuriate in the rich palette of horror concocted by Fisher and the Hammer artisans, all in service to their gory vision of a familiar tale. (The movies violence, as I was pleased to discover upon a recent viewing, still has the power to shock.) The Curse of the Werewolf is by no means ashamed of its familiarity, yet the glory of the movie is in its willingness to push not only the boundaries of the violence, but the very tactile sense of the world it depicts into ever more heightened realms that never disengage from its essential emotional undercurrent. The movie never parlays style or shock as simple ends in themselves. In a recent conversation with the Horror Dads on the Movie Morlocks site, I attempted to express why horror moves us, or at least me. “It is essentially a conservative genre-- the order, once disturbed, must be restored--” I said, “that can easily accommodate the most radical, satirical, political and comic of perspectives.” I went on to say that one of the elements best expressed by a great horror film is “the moan of a creature who is slave to his/her baser instincts reaching out for a human connection and destroying, with intent or not, the thing he/she most wants to love.” Though I wasn’t thinking of any movie specifically when I offered these thoughts, The Curse of the Werewolf seems perfectly emblematic of these familiar horror themes executed to near perfection.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Terence Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing) and seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hi-jinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder on those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high.

(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Unfortunately, Evil was largely content to rehash the motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside which, aided not at all by the series’ worst make-up effects, assured that Evil would be generally considered to occupy a spot near the bottom of Hammer’s Frankenstein well. There are those who hold the movie in higher regard than I do, and I must admit that it’s been 20-25 years since I last saw it, a viewing which, if I’m not mistaken, was courtesy of a local Oregon TV station on a Sunday afternoon. So yes, it may be time to take another look at The Evil of Frankenstein, perhaps on a double bill with yet another of Hammer’s lesser achievements, Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, both of which have been languished in a stack of DVDs in my office for some time now.)

Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In fact, whereas in previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. In Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even through the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation.

This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein has to dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.

Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.

Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer stock siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates other medical professionals for their dismissive attitude toward his own experiments conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD release, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) It was, I’m sure, the first time I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of head from body courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) Upon seeing it again as an adult, what it seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive.

He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was considered an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a silk changing curtain as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.

Other recommended Terence Fisher/Hammer films:

Four-Sided Triangle (1953)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Mummy (1959)
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
The Gorgon (1964)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Island of Terror (1966)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)

For those whose interest in Hammer goes beyond the films of Terence Fisher, you would do well to keep an eye on TCM’s Movie Morlocks this month, as they are probably not yet finished with a far-ranging overview of Hammer Films to go along with the celebration on TCM. The Morlocks have already featured great pieces by Kimberly Lindbergs on The Devil’s Own (1966), R. Emmet Sweeney on The Damned (1963), Richard Harland Smith on The Brides of Dracula (1960), morlockjeff on The Nanny (1965), keelsetter on Five Million Years to Earth (1967), a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit and, of course, suzidoll’s superb piece on the aforementioned Curse of the Werewolf (1961). (The Movie Morlocks also have all kinds of terrific pieces on non-Hammer horror available to read during this orange-and-black season as well.)

And it bears yet another reminder that Hammer Films returned to the production of feature films for the big screen this past October with the release of Matt Reeves’ powerful Let Me In, a remake of the beloved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In that bucked considerable odds to become a honorable, creative and highly effective film in its own right (both were based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel). That it was rejected by American audiences who have been conditioned to respond to more visceral jolts (and might even say nihilistic violence and slasher clichés) than Reeves’ pensive, deliberate, haunted film was willing to deliver says a lot about the direction modern horror probably won’t go as it cycles out of torture porn, as much as the success of Paranormal Activity (1 and 2) says about where it might be headed next. But Let Me In is also, for all of its technical assurance and liberal bloodletting, a movie that, in its sensitivity toward faces and landscapes and deep-seated respect for the genre’s roots as well as its ability to accommodate a multitude of wrinkles and gyrations amid its familiar tropes, seems comfortably located in the grand Hammer tradition. The best of Hammer’s output proved that lurid color, sexualized subtext and an eye toward character development that was allowed its own time in which to emerge were not elements that were contradictory to the possibility of quality, of richness, of purposeful style. Seen in this context, Let Me In proves a honorable addition to the Hammer canon, right alongside great horror films like Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, evidence that, if box office tallies are not allowed to be the final word, we will be subject to many more brilliant chills to come, a possible renaissance of Hammer style. If that turns out to be where horror is headed (again), we will all have reason to be grateful.

For furthering consideration of the Hammer production company, I happily refer to Watching Hammer.


Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and The Curse of the Werewolf screen together tonight in beautiful new 35mm prints at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.


A portion of this piece originally appeared on the blog on October 17, 2007.


Friday, October 22, 2010


The second night of the Seed of Chucky/Orphan double feature at the New Beverly Cinema was a smash hit, exceeding everyone’s expectations, including my own and the New Beverly staff. But I was most pleased for my friend and co-conspirator in this event, Don Mancini, who has weathered with good humor a lot of criticism of his movie in the past six years, most of it from horror fans who resented the deliberate turn toward comedy that was the signature of the last two Chucky films, and Seed in particular. (I dished some out myself before I finally came around.) So it was very exciting to see him and star Jennifer Tilly swarmed by autograph hounds and New Beverly ticket buyers who were there to celebrate their movie and enjoy it on its own terms, not to measure it against their own expectations for how the Chucky series should or should not have proceeded. The near-packed house laughed and screamed and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and they were primed as could be for the very entertaining Q&A that followed the movie. Screenwriter Mike Werb , who wrote Face/Off, The Mask and is the creator of the Cartoon Network original live-action series Unnatural History, ably engaged the panel, which consisted of actors Debbie Lee Carrington, Steve West and Jennifer Tilly, producer Corey Sienega and writer-director Don Mancini, in an uncensored, spirited and funny hour-long conversation that has to be one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. We all had so much fun that Don and I are already turning over ideas for a couple of possible future double features, if the New Beverly will have us. But for now, I have to say that last night’s festivities surpassed even the brilliant Orphan Q & A hosted by Don the previous evening. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my not-so-young life, and I’m proud to present the Q & A here in its entirety.

And here is the Q & A from the October 20 program, minus the last three or four minutes-- the tape ran out just before the discussion ended, and had I not started the tape so early before the end credits of the movie were finished I might have had better luck with my timing. But what’s there is excellent stuff-- Don Mancini moderates a discussion between screenwriter David Leslie Johnson, actress Isabelle Fuhrman and producer Erik Olsen immediately after the Wednesday night screening of Orphan. One word of warning about this panel recording: it is extremely NOT spoiler-sensitive, so if you have not yet seen Orphan and would like to have the integrity of the film’s plot development maintained for you until you’ve had a chance to see it for yourself, it is advisable that you do NOT press play. Those of you who do know what’s wrong with Esther may proceed and enjoy a substantial, thoughtful and entertaining discussion of one of the best horror movies of the past decade.

My thanks once again to the New Beverly, to Don and all the special guests, and to all who packed the house both nights and took the time to introduce yourselves and express your appreciation for the programming. Hopefully this will be only the first of many opportunities to share unique movie experiences with you through this site and the wonderful New Beverly Cinema.


Thursday, October 21, 2010


Last night an honest-to-goodness dream of mine came true, and I have a lot of people to thank for that. First, my sincere gratitude to Michael Torgan and Phil Blankenship for screening, the second time this year, a double bill of my choosing. One of the ways I used to while away my free time when I was a young kid was cutting out ads from the Portland and San Francisco newspaper movie pages and creating fantasy double features on calendars for the movie theaters of my imagination. To be able to do that for real, even if for only two nights, is beyond special to me, and to be able to program movies like Orphan and Seed of Chucky, movies I love that deserve as big an audience as possible, is a real honor. Thank you, gentlemen.

I'm also especially honored that the people who were involved in creating these movies would take the time to come down and make the screenings an even more special affair, for me and for everyone in attendance. Watching the end of Orphan while standing at the back of the theater with Isabelle Fuhrman, who plays evil Esther in the movie, and having Isabelle, the film's writer David Johnson and producer Erik Olsen answer questions in front of an excited and attentive audience for an hour-long Q&A, expertly moderated by my friend Don Mancini-- that's just one more reason why I have often come to think of the New Beverly as a little corner of heaven just for movie lovers. It was an incredible night to pay tribute to the talents of all these generous folks who worked so hard and made a truly terrifying film, one that I believe will one day be recognized as a classic of the genre. What a treat and an honor to meet David, Isabelle and Erik and be able to tell them in person how much their movie affected me, how terrific I think it is.

None of it would have happened without Don, who was the conduit through whom all the special guests were contacted and made their commitments to come out to the theater. And he's done the same tonight, bringing actress Jennifer Tilly, producers David Kirschner and Corey Sienega, and moderator Mike Werb (screenwriter of Face/Off and The Mask) for tonight's Seed of Chucky panel. Don and David Johnson even made last night even more special, hosting a dinner at a nearby restaurant for the participants in the Orphan panel and their friends and loved ones. Which meant that another dream came true for me last night-- I met Jennifer Tilly for the first time and ended up sitting across the table from her for dinner. All credit to her for being as friendly and effusive as could possibly be and disarming any nervousness I might have had at the prospect of talking with her over the span of two delightful hours. It was a brilliant start to a night I won't soon forget.

And finally, my most sincere thanks to everyone who came out to see the program last night, including Michael Schlesinger, Chris Stangl, Jacqueline Greed, Ariel Schudson and Cathie Horlick and all the familiar New Beverly regulars. How nice it was to see your faces as I nervously took the microphone to introduce Don and the panel. It's really reassuring to know that people will come out to support this kind of program, people who appreciate the opportunity to see the filmmakers speak and don't take for granted the existence of a place like the New Beverly Cinema. Thanks again for a great time last night. And now the Thursday night Seed of Chucky panel program is only about two hours away, so I must put on my tux and get ready! If tonight is even half as great as last night was, well-- The funny thing is, I thinking it's gonna be twice as good! See ya there, I hope!


Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The rules are simple. Identify as many of the films seen below as you can by their U.S. release title. The first five people to send in the complete list of 30 correct title guesses to before 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, October 30, 2010, will receive as lovely but yet unidentified DVD prizes. If no one guesses all 30, then the five entries with the most correct guesses will be declared the winners. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR GUESSES IN THE COMMENTS THREAD. Some of the frames are easy, some not so easy, but anyone well versed in the horror genre shouldn't have too hard a time with most of them. With one exception, all titles are English language, and all titles (even the foreign language one) come from my own collection, which will go a long way toward explaining the prevalence of a certain variety of horror film present here. That's it! Have fun, horror fans! And those of you in Los Angeles, see you tomorrow night for Orphan and Seed of Chucky!
































Remember, the first five contestants to send all 30 correct answers to by 11:59 p.m. on October 30, 2010 will be the winners. If no one guesses all 30 correctly, then the five entries with the most correct guesses will be declared the winners. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR GUESSES IN THE COMMENTS THREAD. Winners names will be announced on October 31. Good luck!