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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2012!!! (or rather, please try to have one)

Dear Vaulties-

I would like to wish each and every one of you a happy Halloween, which I know will be hard for some of you to have in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I live in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood and the area was beyond fortunate when it came to the damages wrought by the storm, receiving little more than a few downed branches and a few medium-sized trees toppling over to block traffic until cleared away by either the locals or city-deployed cleanup crews. The same cannot be said for several other areas in the NYC area and the rest of the East Coast, as communities rally together to deal with massive flooding, storm damage, the shutdown of public transportation due to flooding, loss of electrical power that threatens to last for a week or more in some cases (the footage of the exploding Con Edison plant on Manhattan's Lower East Side was jaw-dropping), the unscrupulous no-class actions of looters (Hello, Coney Island), and worst of all, the loss of homes and lives. With all of that dire shit going on it's no surprise that the fact that today is Halloween has been completely overshadowed and/or outright forgotten, and damned near every form of celebration of the day here in NYC has been cancelled or pushed back by several days, which makes total sense. You know things are bad when the city cancels the famous NYC Halloween Parade in the West Village and no one objects...

With all of this in mind, I was sitting here in the Vault as fire engine, police car, and ambulance sirens wail while racing to deal with whatever catastrophes crop up on what seems like a half-hourly basis, and the fact that this has to be the saddest Halloween ever just hit me in the face like I was on the receiving end the Michael Palin part in Monty Python's Fish-Slapping Dance. I refuse to just sit here and take the shutdown of the season like I was the new kid in the shower at the juvenile detention hall! I'm gonna strap on my ram's horns and wander around my neighborhood in search of anyone else who has chosen to defy the understandable and utterly legitimate gloom of the East Coast Halloween of 2012, that's what I'm gonna do! I expect the results to be sparse, provided I run into anyone else in any sort of costume at all, but I must at least try.

So have a happy Halloween to the best of your ability, and let's make sure that next year's season of (fun) dread rocks like a motherfucker.


 Yer Bunche

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 31: THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1964)

Three new bodies. Fresh, live, young bodies. No families or friends within thousands of miles, no one to ask embarrassing questions when they disappear. Victor wondered which one Mrs. March would pick. The little Mexican, the girl from Vienna, or the buxom blonde? Victor knew his pick, but he still felt uneasy, making love to an 80 year old woman in the body of a 20 year old girl; it's insanity!
-the film's narrator

One of the staples of my movie education during the glorious pre-cable days were mad scientist movies, and few of them came any madder than this bit of no-budget lunacy. Originally released as MONSTROSITY, this flick is one of those mostly undistinguished and rather generic black & white oddities that would have deservedly languished in obscurity if not for some of the utterly bonkers elements found in its plot.

The film tells the story of a nasty old woman who lives with an unappealing, overage gigolo and seeks to transplant her still nimble and thoroughly evil brain into the body of a young hottie, at first relying on her live-in mad scientist's experiments with freshly-dead nubile young women to yield results. Initially testing his procedure using the brains of animals transplanted into human bodies, the scientist generates a mutant dog/man for no apparent reason other than to serve as an odd-looking and none-too-bright servant, but that avenue of "science" proves a bust when it is determined that the nerve endings of the dead are too far gone to allow a brain transplant to take. With that stumbling block noted, the evil old lady takes out an ad for a new cleaning woman and soon ends up with the three girls described in the narration quoted at the beginning of this post. In short order, the poor Mexican girl is deemed not pretty enough for the old bag's needs and falls prey to the mad scientist, who takes out her brain and replaces it with that of the resident housecat. Why? Your guess is as good as mine but it was apparently for shits and giggles, laughs that were guaranteed when we got to see the "Mexican" actress imitate a kitty in human form and scarf down a live mouse.

As if the general creepiness of the old lady's mansion and the presence of the mutant dog man wandering about the grounds were not enough to cause the remaining pair of girls considerable unease, the disappearance of their Mexican colleague and the old lady locking them in their rooms to ensure that they don't attempt to escape soon twigs the girls to the fact that all is not kosher. During an escape attempt, the British girl is accidentally partially blinded and the remaining blonde bombshell is swiftly prepped for surgery. Having previously signed a legal document, it is revealed to the blonde that her signature was needed so the old lady could legally declare her the heir to her vast fortune (she's described as "one of the richest women in the world," but we are never told where her fortune comes from), and once the old bitch's brain is in her new young (and not coincidentally hot) body she'll pretend to be the young woman, who will be the only survivor when the mansion, its inhabitants and the old lady's body are destroyed in a planned nuclear explosion. But what the old lady does not anticipate is the hatred she's engendered in the scientist and her gigolo after untold years of abuse; both men were willingly strung along in hope of getting a piece of the inheritance when the transplant occurred, but with the blonde now legally declared the sole inheritor, they've had enough. As the blonde and the old lady are strapped to the operating table and anesthetized, the scientist wreaks horrible (and ludicrous) revenge upon the old woman, leaving the blonde untouched but transplanting the old lady's brain into the housecat, leaving the old lady's intelligence exactly as it was but now trapped in the non-speaking and comparatively impotent body of a common tabby. Reasoning that he'll still have access to the money if he keeps the blonde alive and drugged, the scientist readies to embark on a new life of leisure, but his plans are thwarted when he enters the atomic brain-swap chamber (pictured above) for a final cleanup and ends up locked into it by the pissed-off housecat. The cat then activates the machine, reducing the mad scientist to a skeleton and setting off the chain reaction that will destroy the house. The blonde manages to escape, as does the cat, whom, the narrator informs us, plans to follow the girl and someday, some way, get revenge. THE END.

I've seen countless movies about brain transplants and laboratories that blow up at the end of the movie, but never have I seen such a scenario involving the machinations of an evil housecat who is equipped with the brain of a horny octogenarian. The image of the cat pressing the auto-destruct button with its paw is hilarious, and the idea of said housecat embarking on an implacable quest for vengeance is the cherry atop a glorious confection of implausible ridiculousness. I know one is supposed to completely suspend disbelief for this kind of flick, but even by the standards of D-grade movie science, this just takes the cake. I mean, when the cat's brain was stuffed into the Mexican chick's head, did the doctor account for all the leftover cranial space by filling the rest of the skull with cotton wadding? Would the tiny cat's brain still wobble about a bit, regardless of the stuffing? And when the doctor puts the old lady's brain into the cat's head, how could her brain have possibly remained cognizant, let alone even remotely functional, with a good 85% or more of its mass excised in order to fit into such a vastly smaller skull? Frankly, I don't care. I just love that the screenwriter had the balls to come up with it and not give a flying fuck about even the smallest shred of logic. RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


While THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN offered up ultra-atmospheric Mexican horror that looked and felt like a welcome evocation of the old school Universal horror fright fests, 1962's EL BARON DEL TERROR, better known in the States as THE BRAINIAC, brings the audience something with a whole other flavor, namely that of over-the-top, fun on a bun "we don't give a fuck" insanity.

In the year 1661 in Mexico, ultra-cool Baron Vitelius d'Estera (Abel Salazar) faces officials of the Holy Inquisition when accused with charges of:
  • practicing "dogmatism"
  • having used superstition, witchcraft, and conjurations for "depraved and dishonest ends"
  • having employed the art of necromancy; invoking the dead and trying to foretell the future through the use of corpses
  • having seduced married women and maidens (at that accusation, the baron breaks out an ear-to-ear grin that instantly made me like him)
Baron Vitelius (Abel Salazar) reacts to the citing of his having "seduced married women and maidens." What a pimp!

His hooded inquisitors are quite pissed off at the guy, especially because at no point does the accused take their threats seriously, as he reportedly laughed in their faces as their attempts to harm him via torture utterly failed to have any effect. With his attitude and apparent diabolically-generated invulnerability proving to be one enormous "fuck you" to both the Church and the general public's sense of decency, coupled with the fact that the baron actually welcomes his tormentors showing their impotence by continuing to torture him, the inquisitors opt to burn Vitelius at the state. Only one townsperson, Marcos Miranda (Ruben Rojo), comes forward to defend Vitelius, noting the baron's championing of the arts and science and helping the land's downtrodden people, an effort that earns Miranda an immediately-applied two-hundred lashes (and the gratitude of the condemned, but more on that in a moment). But, unlike a number of other cinematic accusations of witchcraft and sorcery, Baron Vitelius actually is everything he's accused of, and when considering his civic-minded activities as weighed against his crimes, it comes off as the inquisitors being nothing more than a bunch of jealous, vindictive pricks who want the baron gone because he's just so damned cool. (That, and the the fact that he fucked all of their wives, girlfriends, and daughters.) 

Skip to the burning at the stake, where the baron is mockingly dressed in robes of like those of the Pope, and he uses his bitchin' x-ray vision to identify the men beneath the hoods of his inquisitors. As an ominous comet passes overhead, the baron names those he would wreak vengeance upon and states that he will return in three-hundred years, when the comet repeats its cycle and once more passes the Earth, at which point he will expunge their descendants from the face of the planet. The comet returns in 1961 and dumps a huge styrofoam boulder upon the Mexican countryside, which dissipates to reveal a hideous, clawed, balloon-head, brain-devouring monster with a two-foot forked tongue and a taste for human brains. Yes, it's good ol' baron Vitelius, back from the dead and royally pissed off, so look out, innocent 20th century descendants of self-righteous assholes!

Baron Vitelius is back, and now he's out for brains!

Armed with already-sorcerous powers including hypnotism, the ability to make himself disappear and become intangible, along with shape-shifting, the baron slays a random motorist for his clothes (and brain) and promptly gets busy at his promised quest for revenge, killing off the inquisitors' descendants and keeping their freshly-excised gray matter in a chafing dish for snacks (with a handy serving spoon), as well as preying on hookers and barflies while a pair of intrepid detectives attempt to make sense of the trail of literally empty-skulled corpses the baron leaves in his wake. 

Hey, it beats Chicken McNuggets.

Complicating matters is the 20th century relative of the baron's lone supporter from back in the days who is betrothed to a woman descended from one of the inquisitors, and being the inveterate womanizer that he is, the baron struggles with his desire to nail the young woman or kill her to fulfill his curse. So will the couple's love see them through the monster's reign of terror, or will the situation be resolved by the detectives suddenly arriving at the last minute with a pair of army surplus flamethrowers?

Mexican horror films of the 1960's tend to get a bad rap, more often than not deservedly so, but when you have works as unique and balls-out loco as this one, one must remember that sometimes gold nuggets can be found among turds. Many of those turds were brought to the United States and dubbed for sale directly to television, where they became perennials in late-night airings enjoyed by insomniacs, drunks, and stoners, and in the case of THE BRAINIAC, its cult rep was all but guaranteed thanks to its completely insane content. Its internal story logic could kindly be called highly unsound, and the dubbing is amusing dreadful and overwrought in its scripting and vocal delivery, but the single element that makes this one a classic is Abel Salazar as Baron Vitelius. 

Abel Salazar, epitomizing satanic coolness (when not in balloon-headed monster form).

He's super-cool before getting torched, and when he returns in 1961 he displays a focused single-mindedness that is (understandably) inhuman. But while he's admittedly a juggernaut of horrible destruction and evil, Vitelius puts forth a south of the border coolness that makes him an almost James Bondian protagonist that most men will find themselves rooting with (though why a sorcerer of his mettle would choose to visit vengeance upon completely innocent descendants three centuries after the fact rather than just do in his enemies immediately is beyond me).

Campy as hell and majorly weird, I highly recommend THE BRAINIAC to one and all, especially if you can get your hands on the edition released by Casa Negra, which grants the viewer the choice of watching the film dubbed into English, or on the original Spanish with English subtitles. But no matter which choice is made, balls-out crazy is a language that requires no translation.

Poster from the original Mexican theatrical release.

Monday, October 29, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 29: THE LEECH WOMAN (1960)

Like many of the monster-kids of my age who grew up in the Tri-State area, I got my education in horror movies from the local TV stations' numerous showcases for such fare, and THE LEECH WOMAN was a minor offering that seemed to run every other month on WOR Channel 9 (and maybe it actually did), and for reasons that I could not explain at the time I watched it every time I saw it in the TV listings. It's a very late entry in Universal's parade of horror stories and was well past the classic era of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man by the time it hit screens, and it did not contain some other-than-human monster ravaging the Carpathian mountains. Instead it mostly took place in all-too-recognizable/relatable 1960 America and dealt in a horror that all of us understand all too well, the impotent dread of growing old, particularly the perceived female perspective on that inevitability. It's a "little" shocker, but its fantastical/horrible elements become easier to fully relate to with each birthday that I live to see...

Paul (Phillip Terry) and June (Coleen Gray): Can you say "dysfunction?"

Playing like some TWILIGHT ZONE story set during the Rat Pack era, the story introduces us to one of the most dysfunctional couples in cinema this side of George and Martha (of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? infamy), endocrinologist Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) and his wealthy, decade-older-and-not-aging-well wife, June (Coleen Gray). June has attempted plastic surgery in order to re-kindle her husband's interest in her, but to no avail, and both booze it up as often as possible, trading vicious barbs with by-now-routine vitriol that practically drips from the screen. June stays with her toweringly insensitive asshole of a spouse out of a pathetic need to be loved (she somehow still harbors a shred of love for the guy, despite his incredibly verbally abusive treatment of her), while her husband stays with her for her wealth and because — how sick is this? — he genuinely enjoys having her around so she can hate him and he can have someone to hate right back at. You can just tell that Paul would ditch June in a heartbeat if a younger prospect and a way to become independently wealthy came along (preferably one that would allow him to exploit the insecurities of aging women), but since that's not happening he finally tells June to have her lawyer draw up divorce papers. But the answer to his prayers unexpectedly arrives in the form of Malla (Estelle Hemsley), an exceedingly ancient black woman who drops by his office in need of a checkup before a final return trip to her tribal home in Africa. Following the call to her lawyer, Neil Foster (Grant Williams of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN fame), June encounters Malla in the office's waiting room and ends up on the receiving end of Malla's eerie and ominous statement that June will not need to divorce her husband because he will soon die and his death will offer her a new way of life. Needless to say, that conversation freaks June out big-time.

Malla (Estelle Hemsley): a 152-year-old living impossibility.

As the doctor examines her, Malla explains that she is 152 years old and was sold into slavery as a child, stolen along with her mother from her village by an Arab slaver and branded. For years she believed her people had died out but now she has heard that they still survive, somewhere deep in the jungle, and she needs money to afford her return trip. To facilitate this, she offers Paul the secret of her unnatural longevity, which amounts to the secret of eternal youth. Malla's legacy from her mother is a few remaining pinches of a hormone powder that keeps her alive indefinitely when taken on its own, but when properly administered by one of the high priests of her tribe, the powder is combined with another substance known only to the priests, and that combination actually restores the user to a state of vital, vibrant youth. Paul dismisses Malla's story as so much bullshit, until she downs a bit of the powder with some water, after which she tells Paul to examine her again to see that her claims are true. Convinced after a second examination, an excited Paul hears cash registers as he launches an expedition to Africa that trails Malla back to her people, with June in tow, having convinced her of the hormone's efficacy and luring her by making it seem as though he realizes he really loves her and that the trip will save their marriage. Hiring a seasoned tracker (John Van Dreelen) to lead the quest, Paul and company set off in search of the hormone powder's source and the second secret ingredient that will reverse the aging process. During the trek, Paul ceases to be civil to June, and June finally realizes that Paul only wanted her along as a guinea pig who could tell him how she feels after her youth is restored. With that realization, plus the fact that she has no choice but to complete the journey into the unknown. 

Upon finding Malla's hidden village, the outsiders are instantly captured and sentenced to death for violating the tribe's privacy, but before their execution they are allowed to witness Malla's rejuvenation into hotness (Kim Hamilton). The catch is that whomever is restored to full youth is allowed only one night in that state, a night in which they can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for one final time before they are ritually put to death. That's bad enough, but the white folks discover to their horror that the secret ingredient is fluid fatally extracted from the pineal gland of a living human victim. Anyway, the young Malla offers the condemned June a dose of the youth serum and tells her that she must choose the donor. Faster than you can say "Bye-bye, asshole," June names Paul as the lucky sacrifice, and finds herself once more a hot young thang. Overcome by greed upon seeing the proof of the serum's power, the tracker convinces June to escape with him so they can share the riches the stolen secret will surely bring, but June's youth proves short-lived as she begins to once again age and even surpass her previous normal middle age, her body heading straight into living, mummy-like decrepitude. Revolted by June's sudden reversal of hotness, the tracker makes to abandon June in the woods, but he ends up on the receiving end of pineal fluid extraction after falling into quicksand. 

Once more rejuvenated, June makes her way back to the States and moves back into the house she shared with Paul and passes herself off as her own niece, calling herself "Terry Hart." She tells her lawyer that her "aunt" will be along later, and the lawyer finds himself drooling over the toothsome Terry, which does not sit at all well with his fiancee, Sally (Gloria Talbott), who used to be the deceased Paul's assistant. But the hormone's effects require fresh pineal juice in order to work and June's visible aging becomes ever more horrific, which facilitates an old and veiled June going out cruising for sleazy victims. As you can probably guess, none of this ends well for anyone involved.

From pathetic drunken doormat to serial murderer.

Silly title aside, THE LEECH WOMAN has a lot to say about unhealthy relationships, crippling lack of self-esteem, the perceived diminished "worth" of women when they are no longer in the bloom of youth, and the corrupting dangers of getting exactly what one wishes for, all of which allows the narrative to be surprisingly deep in content for what is at heart a garden variety B-movie. We witness June devolve from a pathetic drunken doormat into a creepy gland-vampire who will commit unholy acts in order to hold on to her youth and beauty, and it's truly tragic to witness that progression. All shreds of sympathy that we had for her vanish the moment June returns to America and begins her double life, becoming an even more foul creature than her late husband was, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Looking at it with the benefit of having seen it multiple times over a period of thirty-five years (including its memorable treatment on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000), I may be over-analyzing THE LEECH WOMAN, so don't necessarily approach it thinking you'll be getting something along the lines of Edward Albee gene-spliced with Rod Serling. With that in mind, it's a brisk and very solid seventy-seven minutes that will give the viewer much to ponder when June meets her inevitable sorry fate.

Original theatrical release poster.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


A Jew-fro coiffed Count Dracula ("Zandor Vorkov," aka stockbroker Roger Engel) goes to work.

You know your life is a shit sandwich when you're about to be sexually assaulted beneath a pier by a trio of biker scumbags, but then your would-be rapists are horribly killed by a hulking axe-murderer who then kidnaps your unconscious self for medical experiments at the hands of a 20th century  descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. Either that, or you're in an infamous cheapjack monster flick crafted by Al Adamson, the guy who graced the world with such timeless classics as SATAN'S SADISTS (1969), HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (1970), and BLAZING STEWARDESSES (1975).

When a nightclub performer (Regina Carrol) sets off in search of her missing sister, she never imagines she'll find herself on a trail of escalating weirdness that includes a boardwalk "creature emporium" monster exhibit, an underground laboratory, questionable medical experiments, getting unwittingly drugged and tripping balls, scurvy bikers, hippies, a dismembering axe-murderer (Lon Chaney, Jr.), and none other than the latest member of the Frankenstein clan (J. Carrol Naish) and Count Dracula himself ("Zandor Vorkov," aka stockbroker Roger Engel). The modern Frankenstein seeks to revive the dormant man-made monster cobbled together by his famous ancestor and Dracula offers to help make that happen, provided the not-so-good doctor creates a serum that will make the lord of vampires completely invincible, and as the story progresses it all unfolds into a glorious mess whose proceedings quite obviously bear the mark of multiple, unsuccessfully-integrated script revisions.

Bargain basement piece of shit though it so obviously is, I can't say that I wasn't legitimately entertained by DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. Allow me to break down my reasoning:
  • The story is fun and feels like it was written by and for an eight-year-old.
  • The film's Dracula is perfectly acceptable as a hippie-era iteration of the character who kinda looks like Doctor Strange and wields a magic ring with a lightning-emitting death ray.
  • The score mixes library music with elements shamelessly cribbed from the instantly recognizable score for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).
  • It has a Frankenstein monster that looks like they stuck the actor's head in a pot of oatmeal before slapping an unruly flattop wig on him.
  • A number of faces familiar to horror buffs and movie fans in general are on parade here, including J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney, Jr., Russ Tamblyn, Anthony Eisley, little Angelo Rossito, Jim Davis, and even FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine founder and all-around friend to sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Forrest J. Ackerman.
  • For a film that's as kid-friendly as it is, the movie has a few moments of bloody gore that are made extra-fun by not looking even the slightest bit realistic, slathered as they are with liberal doses of bright red paint straight from the local Sherwin Williams.
  • The all-time lamest Dracula-destroyed-by-sunlight sequence ever filmed. It's so bad, it's a fucking triumph.
DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is undeniably ridiculous, but it has an unabashed DIY charm that's quite endearing. I don't recommend coming to it expecting quality or even cinematic competence, but its ninety minutes are never dull, which is more than I can say for a legion of films that were made with a hell of a lot more going on for them behind the camera than this humble effort. It's all in good (?) fun, and it's best approached with that aspect in mind.

A completely misleading original release poster.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 27: THE DEVILS (1971)

The late Ken Russell (1927-2011) was one of my all-time favorite directors, a visionary British auteur who populated his frame with beautiful compositions fueled by his febrile and lusty imagination. Renowned/infamous for his excesses in the realms of warped sexuality, over-the-top art direction, and an unabashedly psychedelic sensibility, the man directed a number of classics, but none so accessible or divisive as his 1971 masterpiece, THE DEVILS, a delirious retelling of a true story that all-too-believably shows there is no worse horror than that wrought by man upon his fellow man in the name of religious hypocrisy and the pursuit of power.

In the France of 1634, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) seeks more power so he can suppress Protestants from rising up against the Catholic church, power that he acquires by convincing King Louis XIII (a flamboyantly fey Graham Armitage) to let him destroy the fortifications of cities across the country. (Exactly how that's supposed to work completely eludes me, and I've seen the film about a half-dozen times.) The sole town excepted from the wholesale demolition is Loudon, which is exempt thanks to the king having promised its governor that no harm would come to it. That status changes when the governor dies and leaves the place under the control of Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in a terrific performance), who's a far cry from anyone's concept of an exemplary priest. Grandier doles out spiritual aid to the populace, but he's a handsome, virile man who greatly enjoys the pleasures of the flesh and the power his rank in the Church allows him. The women of Loudon openly fantasize about being bedded by him and Grandier's priapic hobbies are common knowledge to all and sundry, including, unfortunately, his serial impregnation of young girls sent to him for personal religious instruction. Grandier dismisses his latest knocked-up conquest when she tells him of her condition and he could not care less about what becomes of her or his percolating bastard, being the smug, entitled prick that he is.

Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave): deformed, highly unstable, and jonesing for some Grandier dick.

Unbeknownst to Grandier, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the hunchbacked and rather unstable top nun at the local convent, has intense sexual fantasies/religious visions starring Grandier as Christ and herself as a yearning Blessed Virgin, a situation inflamed by damned near the entire population of the convent sharing the local women's lusty appreciation of Grandier. (What the hell kind of convent is this anyway?) Sister Jeanne's obsession spirals into well-hidden madness and boils over when news of Grandier's secret marriage to one of his religious groupies (Gemma Jones) gets out. As the nuns stage a lusty costumed reenactment of the nuptials within the convent walls, a new confessor arrives to see the sister and in an act of jealous vindictiveness, she accuses Grandier of sorcery and demonically possessing her mind and body. From there, Grandier's political enemies descend like locusts and, with the help of a clearly insane "witch hunter" (Michael Gothard), convince the entire order of nuns to fake being in the constant throes of satanic influence, which results in a license to publicly blaspheme, get butt naked in droves, thrash about on the ground like fish out of water, and engage in all manner of un-nun-like sins of the flesh, all while announcing up and down that their deranged state is the gleeful handiwork of Urbain Grandier. In the midst of a spirited orgy within the convent's walls, a disguised Louis XIII proves it's all a sham, but, amused by the decadent excess, tells all involved to have fun and takes his leave,  which results in the licentiousness reaching new manic heights as the nuns desecrate and literally rape a large statue of Jesus Christ. (A scene that I'm certain raised a few eyebrows at the Vatican.) With so much stacked against him and the public believing the false accusations, there's absolutely no way out for the not-so-good father, whose date with the torture chamber and death by immolation at the stake is a forgone conclusion. But will Grandier go to his horrible death defiantly steadfast in his claims of innocence of witchery, a stance that would give hope to unbelievers and undermine the Church, or will he confess and burn anyway, but going to that fate knowing that he did right in the eyes of the Almighty?

Sister Jeanne: How much better off would she have been if Toys in Babeland had existed in 1634?

In every way the polar opposite of MARK OF THE DEVIL and the logical progression from the template set by WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEVILS stands as the final word in the witch hunt sub-genre. It takes its material very seriously and while its liberal doses of nudity, sacrilegious offensiveness, perverse cruelty and torture could be (and were) seen as crassly exploitative by some, there really was no other way to tell this story minus its visceral rawness and have it retain even a shred if its impact. Even today it remains strong stuff, and Russell's beautiful and stark art direction offers a visually arresting counterpoint to the ugliness committed as the story's events unfold. If THE DEVILS truly is exploitation, then it is exploitation as legitimate cinematic art and a beast of terrifying, lasting beauty that all devotees of film in general and horror of the all-too-human kind in particular should give serious consideration. And while it's technically an historical drama, make no mistake and bear in mind that there is stark terror to be had here. If you only see one film from the historical witch hunt hysteria genre, THE DEVILS is hands down the one not to miss.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Friday, October 26, 2012


The utterly creepy visage of Aunt Selma (Rita Macedo).

Like the presumed majority of American horror movie junkies, my experience with Mexican cinema of the macabre is limited mostly to the numerous cheapjack efforts that made their way across the border in terrible dubbed versions and more often than not showcased popular masked Mexican professional wrestlers — most famously El Santo, Mil Mascaras, and the Blue Demon — defeating an unending parade of psychopathic murderers, evil scientists, robots, dastardly doctors, space aliens and, of course, monsters like vampires, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein-style man-made abominations, and what have you. Promoted under the blanket tag of "Mexican horror wrestling" movies in the early days of FANGORIA magazine (much to the confusion of the average young American reader in those days of slasher movie dominance), the films of that ilk that most interested me were the ones involving creatures of a uniquely Mexican origin and cultural flavor, and when such films were crafted with good scripts, decent budgets, solid acting (which sometimes came across in spite of the horrendous/ludicrous dubbing) and intelligent respect for the genre, they could be treasures indeed. Such is the case with THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN, a film that I only heard of for the first time a couple of years ago, and it came from out of nowhere to become one of my very favorites.

Aunt Selma, awaiting innocents to savagely murder for her unholy agenda.

Back in the days in Mexico (presumably sometime in the early-to-mid-1800's), pretty young newlywed Amelia (Rosita Arenas) is summoned to the lonely hacienda of her aunt Selma (Rita Macedo), whose husband is said to have recently died under mysterious circumstances. Aunt Selma is about as creepy as a human being can get — what with her not having visibly aged during the twenty years since her niece last saw her, possessing jet-black almond-shaped eyes when in witchy mode, having the ability to change into a bat, casting no reflection in mirrors, and  hanging around in the local wastes with her pack of murderous Great Danes and a hunchbacked henchman, waylaying travelers and brutally orchestrating their merciless exits from this mortal coil— but she welcomes her niece and her niece's husband, Jaime (Abel Salazar), and in no time clues Amelia in on exactly why she has summoned her to her ancestral home. You see, Aunt Selma has kept the dessicated undead corpse of the legendary "La Llorona ("The Crying Woman"), a witch from Mexican folklore who was kinda/sorta executed by a tribunal, in her cobweb-festooned basement/dungeon, and  barely maintains its immortal existence by murdering the jurors' descendants and feeding it their blood in order to restore her and gain her dark powers (as was demonstrated at the very beginning of the film).

The undead remains of La Llorona, awaiting resurrection.

Now, at midnight, Amelia turns twenty-five years old, at which time she is prophesied to remove the lance that kinda/sorta killed La Llorona, restoring the witchy creature to life and granting Aunt Selma the blackest of omnipotence. Unwilling to be a part of so diabolical an agenda, Amelia opts to take her husband and leave immediately, but her aunt ominously tells her that her fate is irrevocably linked to the curse of La Llorona thanks to them being her direct descendants and there's not a damned thing she can do to prevent the prophecy from playing out as written. For her part in all of this, Amelia is promised immortality and tremendous power, and as the fateful hour draws near she finds herself in the thrall of the curse's baleful influence, craving human blood to replace her own, which is being leeched away by the curse's effect. And as if that's not bad enough, part of the curse upon the women of their line is that their men will inevitably be driven mad and end up as crazy, hideously deformed wildmen (Guess what happened to Selma's allegedly deceased spouse?), and Jaime is next in line for that unfortunate process (with no small amount of voodoo-style assistance from Aunt Selma)...

THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN is simply drenched in old school atmosphere and I would not at all be surprised to find out that it was a loving and wholly intentional evocation of the classic Universal horror flavor/aesthetic, with a good helping of the Italian witchery classic BLACK SUNDAY (1960) thrown in for good measure. The film meets all of my personal criteria for classics of the Mexican horror genre and it does not disappoint for even one moment of its eighty-minute running time. All of the performances are top shelf and the actor who plays jaime, Abel Salazar is familiar and beloved by American fans who will never forget him thanks to his starring turn as the title character in the following year's THE BRAINIAC (about which there will be a full discussion in a few days, so stay tuned). Kids and adults will eat THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN right up and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Thankfully, it's available in a fantastic DVD edition from Casa Negra that gives the viewer a great restored print and Spanish and English language options (go for the the Spanish with subtitles). If you call yourself any kind of true fan of the horror film as an art form, you need this in your collection immediately.

Poster from the original Mexican theatrical release.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 25:THE PROWLER (1981)

When determining the roster of films I'd be making my way through for this year's month-long series of horror movies reviews, I considered a number of the slasher films that so defined part of my generation's growing-up experience, and among those was THE PROWLER. I first saw it when it came out and even at the tender age of sixteen it struck me as nothing more than yet another entry in the slaughterhouse deluge meant to cash-in on the unexpected box office success of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), but over the years I'd heard it reminisced about with fondness on several occasions so I figured I'd give it a second chance from the perspective of my forty-seven-year-old sensibilities. Hey, for all I knew I could have ended up with a pleasant re-discovery like I had when I watched the gore-restored version of THE BURNING a few years back...

THE PROWLER (also released as ROSEMARY'S KILLER) starts out promisingly enough in a flashback to 1945 with cheery black-and-white World War II newsreel footage announcing the return of victorious American G.I.'s at the conflict's end, and abruptly cuts to a voiceover reading of a "Dear John" letter to a returning soldier from his girl, Rosemary, who dumps him after declaring that she's breaking her promise to wait for him because the war went on to long and she was young and she should be living her life, and you get the idea. Following that the film shifts location to the town of Avalon Bay on the night of a graduation dance — high school or college is not made clear — that Rosemary's attending with her new rich kid boyfriend. When the pair leave the dance to do some fairly chaste fooling around at a secluded gazebo, they find themselves on the business end of a double-impalement by a pitchfork wielded by an unidentified figure in what appears to be military gear.

35 years later, the murders remain unsolved and have become part of local folklore, and the graduation dance is being held for the first time since the now-legendary killings. As is wont to happen in film's of this nature, the second the graduation dance is in full swing, the murders begin, and a deputy cop (Christopher Goutman) is left in charge to deal with things when the sheriff (Farley Granger) goes off on vacation — despite some random perp having just robbed a store in a nearby town, killed a teenager and stole his car, and is now believed to be heading to Avalon Bay. As the killings progress, the cop is accompanied by Pam (Vicky Dawson), a pretty student with whom he shares a mutual attraction, and the two wander from old, creepy house, to girls' dorm, to cemetery and back to the dance, always one step behind the masked murderer. It all comes to a head when Pam is trapped alone with the pitchfork-wielding psycho and the murderer's identity is revealed...

Well, after sitting through THE PROWLER for the first time in just over thirty years, I'm kinda sorry I wasted my time because I came away from it with little or nothing. There's absolutely no suspense to speak of and the plot, such as it is, once again serves as nothing more than an excuse for completely reasonless slaughter and the film's leisurely pace drags listlessly, making it feel like much of the running time has been mercilessly padded out. (It has.) It also contains a plethora of completely un-suspenseful POV shots, sometimes from the murderer's perspective but all-too-often meant to fake us into thinking we're seeing things through the killer's eyes, an aspect that almost immediately wears out its welcome. But for me the most grievously annoying aspect of the film's by-the-numbers mayhem is its over-reliance on too many cheap "BOO!" scares, the kind where they abruptly throw in something meant to startle and fake-out the audience, and in all the times I've seen that done in countless movies, I have never once found it scary. In this film, the "BOO!" element is gratuitous to the point of near-self-parody, and I don't mean in an amusing way.

On the meager plus side, THE PROWLER does benefit from some of the best gore effects of quintessential 1980's gore-meister Tom Savini's finest efforts. The murders depicted here are of an especially intimate and sadistic nature, often shown in tight closeup and in situations where the victims never stood a chance. The standouts include a brutal shower impalement of a nude student, a savage throat-slashing in a swimming pool, and one of the best shotgun blast to the head effects that it has ever been my pleasure to witness. And all of this is featured in what is one of the best-put-together/ best-shot entries in the entire slasher sub-genre, and it's a damn shame that those aspects weren't bolstered by a better script and better pacing. To tell the truth, the only reason I stuck with it was to find out exactly who the killer was, and once that reveal happened it was a colossal collision of "that's incredibly fucking stupid" and "who the fuck cares?"

Bottom line: THE PROWLER is of interest for '80's-era slasher movie completists only, although its kill scenes would make for a decent highlights reel. If you must see a slasher entry from that golden era, go straight to THE BURNING.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Five college-age friends head off into an unspecified southern backwoods (likely North Carolina, since that's where the film was shot) for a week-long retreat at a remote cabin and unwittingly find themselves at Ground Zero of a virulent flesh-eating virus outbreak. There are no phones or phone reception with which to call for help, their pickup truck is contaminated by a diseased hermit who spews gobbets of chunky, bloody phlegm all over its interior, a vicious dog lurks in the nearby woods, heavily armed (and disease-aware) rednecks are encroaching, and as the disease proliferates, the group's bond erodes along with their flesh. In short, it's a scenario where there's simply no way out, and watching its bleak inevitability play out is riveting.

That sums up the basic plot in a nutshell, but my capsule description doesn't get across just how good CABIN FEVER is. Like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, it takes the "youth in the remote woodland cabin" template and uses that done-to-death setup to tell a compelling story populated by characters that we get to know and therefore care about, and writer/director Eli Roth, a dyed-in-the-wool horror movie junkie if ever there was one, more than delivers the goods. He obviously gives a damn about what he's crafting and approaches it with far more intelligence than one would expect. He wrings terrific performances from the entire cast and, for a film of its recent vintage, piles on the blood and gore like it was extra gravy being slathered all over an especially tasty Thanksgiving feast. Some of CABIN FEVER's gory set pieces have earned their place among the highlights of the 2000's horror pantheon, especially what Roth refers to as the "finger-bang misfire" — a sequence that majorly squicked-out the audience when I saw it in the theater during it's opening weekend — and the now-infamous bit of post-coital leg-shaving...

Watching the film again for this 31-day project, I was pleased to see that CABIN FEVER's qualities actually seem to have improved with age. It's rock-solid from top to bottom and it's so enjoyable that I was able to sit through it a total of four times over the past few days, first to watch it straight through, and then three more times to absorb three of the DVD's four audio commentaries, each of which was very entertaining. The film hits the right balance of humor and outright, no-way-out terror, and it absolutely holds up during repeat viewings, so take my word for it and don't get mad at me for not going into minute detail about the movie's particulars, an intentional move so you'll be spurred to see it for yourself. And in closing, just allow me to say, "PANCAAAAAAAAAKES!!!"


Poster from the original theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


If someone were to ask me what I thought of as a perfect, primal, no-holds-barred horror film, I would not hesitate to point them to director Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW (two words, not one) MASSACRE, a film that I was initially very disappointed by, but one that has over time come to rank very highly in my estimation.

I was nine years old when THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE first hit the screen and despite my parents' somewhat lax criteria for what I could or could not go to see with them, there was no way in hell they'd ever have taken me to see a movie with so lurid a title. (Plus, while they did not shy away from films with graphic violence, horror and gore movies were decidedly not their bag.) So I endured the next seven or eight years hearing wild tales about how the flick was so out of control that there were scenes of limbs being graphically sawed off and flung about as blood geysered all over the camera, and with each year the tales of its rumored excesses grew ever taller. I mean, how could a film featuring a family of chainsaw-wielding maniacs who engaged in on-screen cannibalism possibly fail to appeal to the febrile tastes of a budding gorehound?

Skip ahead to my junior year in high school and one of the venerable Sono Cinema's now-legendary "Scream All Night" film festivals, the first such all-night event that I ever attended. If I remember correctly, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was the first or second film on the bill and as it unspooled I found out firsthand that virtually all of the rumors I'd heard about it had been second-hand bullshit spread by schoolmates and their older siblings, none of whom had seen the film that I was sitting through. There was no trace of the celluloid charnel house that I'd awaited witnessing for all those years, and there wasn't even a massacre to speak of. When I returned to school the following Monday, I launched on a crusade to dispel the lies told about the film and steer my classmates away from what at the time I felt was a textbook case of the emperor having no clothes. Sadly, a good number of my peers shared my opinion and none of us were willing to give the film a second chance.

That changed sometime during my infamous year living in SUNY at Purchase's B-basement during my third year of college, a period where I and a good number of my friends wallowed in THC-laden excess and did more watching of cult items on VHS tapes than actually giving a jackleg fuck about attending classes. Somewhere between the massive doses of untranslated anime shows straight from Japanese first-run TV, then-legal Traci Lords tenderloin opuses, and cheapjack straight-to-video gore flicks, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE found its way into my stack of tapes to be watched, and I got to it with the intention of refreshing it in my bonghit-addled mind. Watching it alone and with full knowledge of its actual content was a whole other experience from my first time with it, and the second time around I found myself fascinated by its every aspect.

The quintessential mid-1970's iteration of the kind of creepy "innocents wander into some very bad shit" yarn that's been told around campfires since Day One, the narrative is informed by the nation having been exposed to the all-too-real nightmarish horrors of the deranged Ed Gein and what he got up to in the 1950's, a litany of unspeakable acts and "handicrafts" that found their way into the landscape of America's darker shared consciousness immediately after they were made public. Also a likely influence upon the film is an ultra-intense E.C. Comics-style sensibility when it comes to the hellish situation the van full of innocents find themselves in, with the story's descent-into-hell aspects far outweighing the more obvious, broad humor found in the average E.C. comic book. (Thankfully, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE's slow-winding tension and shocks don't suffer from the "comic" relief of bad Crypt Keeper jokes.)

Upon viewing the film from a slightly more mature perspective, I was taken by its look and feel, which transports the viewer into a kind of netherworld road movie that's stated to be set in Texas, but for all intents and purposes it's really a purgatory in the middle of nowhere, which only serves to distance the story from reality and set it firmly in an environment that would have made the Brothers Grimm proud. I used to think John Waters was nuts when he said he felt it was a perfect scary movie for kids, but I now totally get where he was coming from; its gore is about 98% implied, there's no sex or nudity, and all of its story elements can be clearly understood by kids without having to explain away any "adult" content, which is why it so strongly reminds me of an old E.C. horror comic. And I defy you to find a more terrifying sequence than when Leatherface suddenly explodes onto the scene and drags away that poor, tiny, screaming girl to hang her up alive on a meat hook through the back. It's downright appalling and yet there's no blood or gore whatsoever. and to me the fact that the scene is as balls-out powerful as it is proves to me that this film is a work of horrific art. And things only get more hysterical (in the truest sense of the word) when the group's last surviving member (Marilyn Burns) ends up as a very unwilling guest at what may be the most harrowing family dinner in the entire history of cinema.

Worst. Dinner. EVER.

Following my mid-1980's change of opinion, I sat through the film several more times, but the screening that took the cake was the one in which I sat my then-roommate, Mark, through it. It was somewhere around 1992 and Mark had never seen the movie but expressed interest, so we went down to the local bodega, procured a hefty assortment of beers — "You're gonna need these," I told him — and then settled in to watch the videotape. By the end of the film, Mark found himself completely wound up and totally creeped-out to the point of practically having to be peeled bodily from our living room ceiling. He did not expect to be so strongly affected by what he thought would be just another horror outing that might not have registered to his somewhat-jaded sensibilities, and I firmly believe he enjoyed it all the more because it was more than another of the cookie-cutter, garden variety slasher flicks like the ones that proliferated during our adolescence.

Bottom line, I fucking love THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and I will gladly sit through it at any time of the day or night. It's the ne plus ultra of its particular breed of fright cinema and is a force to be reckoned with. Accept no substitutes. (The first sequel is fun in a goofy way, but skip all that followed that one. There's really just no point in trying to recapture this kind of once-in-a-lifetime lightning in a bottle, and I wish the sequel-makers and contemporary remake regurgitators would realize as much.)

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Monday, October 22, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR-Day 22: TEETH (2007)

Worst Gynecological. Exam. EVER.

Perfectly striking the incredibly delicate balance between dark comedy and outright horror, TEETH has the look and feel of any garden variety teen coming of age comedy, with its narrative centered on Dawn (a winsome Jess Weixler), a sweet high school student who serves as a very vocal proponent for Christian pre-marital sexual abstinence. Living in the shadow of a twin-towered nuclear power plant, Dawn shares a house with her father, terminally-ill step-mom, and very creepy, obviously disturbed older step-brother, Brad (John Hensley). As adolescent biological urges wage war with Dawn's stance on abstinence, Dawn fails to recall an incident from her early childhood in which her already hateful soon-to-be step-brother (who's maybe five or six at the time) curiously tries to digitally probe her vagina while they're both in a kiddie pool, only to end up with the tip of the exploring finger getting mysteriously severed. It turns out that for whatever reason (my money's on the nearby nuclear plant), Dawn possess the literal "vagina dentata" of mythology, the teeth of which are described as being akin to those of a lamprey, and her self-imposed sexual repression keeps her toothy nether region in check. Unfortunately for Dawn, as she struggles with her utterly normal teenage desires, she runs afoul of a string of predatory, misogynistic peers and grown men who find themselves on the severing receiving end of her snapper's chomping defensive reaction, which leaves the sweet girl feeling horrible guilt while also considering herself and her budding adult sexuality as inhumanly monstrous.

TEETH is simultaneously funny, horrific, and unsettling in what it has to say about how society treats women by means of infantilization and repression of their sexuality and the autonomous control thereof, as well as male domination of women's bodies and the maintaining of a casual rapist mentality of the entitled oppressor. The narrative paints a very negative picture of the male in general society  — virtually every guy in the film sexually abuses Dawn, with the notable exception of her dad — and has been railed against by some as a flagrant piece of misandry-laden femi-nazi propaganda, but I don't see it that way at all. The story is clearly intended to be a very dark comedy that tackles some very tough subjects while addressing long-held cultural taboos about all things vagina-related, and the men in the story have to be verminous creeps in order for its impact to succeed. And though her Cronenbergian "body horror" may lead some to consider her a monster, Dawn is anything but horrific and she is quite likable, which only makes the audience care for her all the more and want to see her arrive at some kind of peace with her literally mythic pussy. 

TEETH is right up there with BAD BIOLOGY as a modern comedic examination of fear wrought by our own genitalia, and is by far the better-crafted of the two. I recommend it in general, but most especially for women who have a sense of twisted humor when it comes to their own girly bits.

Poster for the original theatrical release.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 21: EQUINOX (1970)

I caught bits and pieces of the cult horror item EQUINOX a few times when it ran late at night on one of NYC's now virtually defunct non-network movie showcases, but I never managed to see the film from start to finish until a few nights ago. Now that have finally seen it, I have to say that I don't think it deserves its reputation, though it is by no means a terrible movie. Plus, it's of considerable historical note for having been co-directed by Dennis Muren (credited as the film's producer), who would later go on to win several Best Visual Effects Oscars for his work in such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VI-RETURN OF THE JEDI, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY,  and JURASSIC PARK.

The plot is a bit of indie, bargain basement, kid-suitable horror that opens with an abrupt explosion and twenty-something Dave (Edward Connell) coming to in its wake, only to find his girlfriend, Susan (Barbara Hewitt), laying bloody and dead nearby. Clearly terrified by some unseen threat, Dave runs out of the barren area, up a nearby hill and onto a local roadway, where his is promptly hit by a car that has no driver behind the wheel. The narrative then skips ahead by a year and we find that Dave is now quite insane and an inmate at a mental institution. The explanation of how he found himself in this situation is revealed in flashback: Dave, Barbara, their friend Jim and Jim's girlfriend all head off into the hills of California to picnic and search for Dr. Waterman (played by famed science-fiction/horror/fantasy author Fritz Leiber), who has gone missing after engaging in experiments of a dark nature. After seeing a medieval-style castle appear on a nearby hill and stumbling upon the wreckage of Waterman's house and encountering a creepy forest ranger (Jack Woods) named — now get this —"Asmodeus," the quartet meets an old man in a cave who gives them a locked and ancient book that literally reeks of arcane evil and suchlike. (It actually smells of sulphur.)

Park ranger Asmodeus (Jack Woods).

In short order, the gang realizes that the book contains actual, working magical spells and info on how to defend against assorted evil/black magic, info that they put to practical use once Asmodeus — who is apparently the Asmodeus, you know, the ultra-demonic one from ancient deuterocanonical lore — comes after them so he can get his diabolical mitts on the tome. After facing a couple of monsters summoned by the arch-fiend and a mind-controlled Barbara enduring a creepy near-rape by him, the whole group meet assorted dire fates, with Dave the sole survivor, but Asmodeus's parting shot was to curse Dave with death exactly one year and a day after thwarting the devil's agenda. The tale then skips back to the present, exactly a year and one day after the curse is stated, and the terrified and strait-jacketed Dave screams for his confiscated crucifix while awaiting the inevitable...

EQUINOX is a film whose ambition far outstrips the budding skills of its makers, and it is to be commended for thinking big. Its very Lovecraftian flavor is quite charming, especially when unleashed in the 1960's (though released in 1970, the bulk of the film was reportedly shot in 1967, and it shows), and its basic story and structure are solid, but it does suffer from a case of taking too long to really allow anything to happen. It's nearly an hour into the proceedings before the weirder elements come to the fore, and by that time it's perhaps too little too late. The monsters are a lot of fun though, and there's a hulking stop-motion animated critter (brought to life by Jim Danforth and Dave Allen, later of FLESH GORDON infamy) that seems intentionally reminiscent of the cyclops from THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

EQUINOX is also of interest for featuring the screen debut of Frank Boers, Jr., later and better-known to late-1970's-era TV viewers as Frank Bonner, who memorably played oily radio station sales manager Herb Tarlek on the classic sitcom WKRP IN CINCINNATI (1978-1982). He plays the ill-fated Jim, and it took me until about halfway through the film before I sat up and yelped, "Hey! That's Herb Tarlek!!!"

The young Frank Boers, Jr., aka WKRP IN CINCINNATI's Frank Bonner.

It's a humble effort and definitely worth the audience's time, but one must go into it aware that it takes a long time to really get going (by which time time it's practically over), and also expecting no actual scares (or at least not scares that would affect anyone over the age of six). That said, it's a fine way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon with the kids.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR-Day 20: WOLFEN (1981)

When WOLFEN first came out, I was sixteen years old and hungry for any and all horror films that I could encounter, with my appetite for scares of the lupine variety kicked into high gear by the excellence of THE HOWLING. You see, like most fans of the genre, I have a particular flavor of horror and preference of monster that pleases me more than any other, and that would be yarns about werewolves, so when WOLFEN came out I was more than ready for it. Or so I thought.

When a South Bronx urban renewal plan begins demolishing a dodgy neighborhood infested with junkies and other assorted lowlives, a series of brutal and bizarre murders commences, starting with the rich developer behind the development initiative. Also killed are his girlfriend and his huge, Haitian bodyguard, who was a gun-wielding former officer in Haiti's infamous Tonton Macoute paramilitary force (a group of guys you would NOT want to mess with). Investigating NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is put under direct pressure from his boss, the commissioner, and the mayor to solve the case with expedience, thanks to the murders being (incorrectly) believed to be the work of a terrorist organization called "Gotterdammerung." Noting the deceased bodyguard's prominent ring proclaiming his voodoo affiliation and not buying into the convenient , Dewey's sleuthing takes a decidedly supernatural turn as the murders proliferate and yield inexplicable forensic evidence (or complete lack thereof) from the victims' remains. In no time, Dewey, his coroner buddy Whittington (Gregory Hines), assigned criminal psychologist partner Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), and weirdo zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan) find themselves on the trail of creatures straight out of Native American mysticism — a connection pointed out by Ferguson — a pack of wolf-spirit predators who kill to preserve their hunting territories (and also to take advantage of any weak and easy prey that may wander within their range). The Wolfen have a number of bizarro powers that, among other things, allow them to remain undetected my the eyes of unbelieving mortal men (until it's too late), so even if Dewey could prove their existence and culpability for the killings, who in the modern age would believe his findings? 

Though quite intelligent, mature in approach, and delivered in a way that renders its fantastic elements believable, WOLFEN unfortunately comes as something of a disappointment when sandwiched between the same year's back-to-back lupine onslaught of THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (all were released in 1981). It's less of a straight-up horror movie than it is a police/detective procedural with a rather dull first hour, but things liven up considerably once we start getting clued in as to exactly what the hell is going on in regard to the supernatural predators. The performances are all good and the story's mostly solid — I could have done without a pointlessly-included sexual encounter between Dewey and Rebecca that comes from out of nowhere and adds absolutely nothing to the plot — so I say it's worth a one-time look for lupine horror completists and those who want to see Edward James Olmos running around butt-nekkid as a militant Native American pretending to be a wolf. Also of note is James Horner's score, which features a few flourishes that would become indelible when revisited some five years later for the score accompanying ALIENS.

Poster from the original theatrical release.