Category Archives: horror films

Halloween on the TV 

  
When I was a kid, I loved everything about Halloween, including the way it changed TV.

For days leading up to Halloween and definitely on the day itself, TV channels and networks would run Halloween-themed specials. Not just Charlie Brown but old movies on the local channels.

When cable exploded in the 1980s, the selection was even greater. I loved the movies and specials that aired on AMC and TCM.

Tonight I’m confronted with more movies than I’ll have time to watch, from “The Lost Boys” on VH1 to “Dead of Night” on TCM to the “Blacula” movies – both of em – on Bounce, the local “urban” station. 

It’s a seasonal embarrassment of riches. 

Warm hands?

  
This ad for William Castle’s 1959 fright flick “House on Haunted Hill” has me all “huh?”

See it with someone with warm hands has a more than devilish meaning, seems like.

Also – a blurb from Louella Parsons? Was Hedda Hopper out of town?

Forty years later: ‘Jaws’

jaws

I’m pretty much dumfounded to realize that it’s been 40 years since “Jaws” debuted in theaters.

I still remember vividly the day my friend Jim and I saw the movie.

We were early-to-mid-teenagers and movies were a passion of ours – horror movies, science fiction movies, action movies, classic movies – so we went pretty regularly.

Summer movies were different before “Jaws” was released in 1975 and much less blockbuster-oriented. “Jaws” has been credited – or blamed – with creating the summer movie season as we know it: Action movies, sci-fi movies and mass-market fare.

If you think back to the summer of 1974, the last summer before “Jaws,” that theory makes sense. In May 1974, the big releases were “The Lords of Flatbush” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” In June 1974, it was “Chinatown,” decidedly adult fare.

But the two of us were there, during opening weekend, to see “Jaws” in June 1975. We were primed for it. I think I had read Peter Benchley’s novel by that point and kind of knew what to expect.

A twist of fate spoiled the movie for us even further.

We’d been dropped off at the theater by his dad or my dad and discovered the showing of “Jaws” that we wanted to see was sold out. We bought tickets for the next showing and decided to kill time until it began at a nearby ice cream shop.

Little did we know that the kids working behind the counter had seen “Jaws” the night before.

As we sat there, eating our ice cream and feeling increasingly stupid, one of the ice cream jockeys proceeded to spoil most of the big moments in “Jaws.”

“And then the head pops out of the hole in the side of the boat …” You know, things like that.

We still saw the movie and the “head scene” still made me jump. But still.

I saw “Jaws” several times in theaters, many times on home video and, to this day, if I come across it on cable TV, I will put down the remote control and watch from whatever point in the movie I’ve tuned in.

There’s little point in my recapping the plot or the high points of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. If you’ve read this far, you probably know the movie by heart like I do.

The amazing John Williams score. The high seas adventure. The moments of incredible suspense and fright. The “Indianapolis” scene. The intensely human nature of the characters. The cast!

“Jaws” is perhaps the ultimate summer blockbuster. It is also perhaps the ultimate movie experience.

Forty years on, nothing’s changed that. And I can’t believe anything ever will.

Christopher Lee: Last of the legends

christopherlee

When I heard earlier today that Christopher Lee had died at age 93, I thought, “That can’t be right, can it?”

After all, it was only within the past few years that he was playing the evil wizard Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, and just a few years before that when he played Count Dooku (sigh) in the “Star Wars” prequels.

This was a man who – even though he had certainly earned his rest at 93 – had always seemed invincible.

During World War II, Lee fought on the side of the angels, serving in various British military roles and, most amazingly, as a Nazi hunter for Britain’s Registry of War Criminals.

His film career was as lengthy and varied as his contemporary and frequent co-star, Peter Cushing, who often played Van Helsing to Lee’s Dracula in Hammer films beginning in 1958.

satanicrites

Although Lee had a busy career in recent years, it was as Dracula – and Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy – in Hammer films that made his reputation as an actor in horror outings. Sometimes Lee’s Dracula was little more than a snarling creature, but in his last outing as the Count – “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” – he had something of a dual role, playing a reclusive billionaire who wanted to bring about the end of the world … and just happened to be Dracula.

I still vividly remember going to see the 1973 movie, which was released stateside as “Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride,” at a theater here in Muncie. I was almost alone in the theater. Maybe Hammer’s brand of horror seemed old fashioned by that point. After all, “The Exorcist” was released that year and introduced a new type of horror movie to the masses.

But Lee – and Cushing, and Vincent Price, and all the rest, gone now – will always typify the horror genre to me.

We’ll miss you, Mr. Lee.

‘Black Mirror’ a ‘Twilight Zone’ for … yadda yadda

black mirror be right back

Every few years, a new TV series is dubbed “The Twilight Zone” of its generation. Heck, even the 1980s “Twilight Zone” series was called the “Twilight Zone” of its generation. And it was really pretty good.

The designation shows the staying power of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” which began in late 1959 and ran several years into the 1960s.

But while “Black Mirror” might properly be called the “Twilight Zone” of its generation … it just might earn that title a bit more because its emphasis on technology and the way it is integrated into our lives makes it very thoroughly of our generation.

“Black Mirror,” created by Charlie Brooker, has been airing in England for a couple of years now, but its recent appearance on Netflix and online have made it widely known.

It’s a dark show. Dark. And if you don’t the title reference, it seems to me to be about that little slab of glass that most of us carry around with us every day: the smart phone. Dark until it’s activated and, as “Black Mirror” shows us, that little piece of glass and plastic and electronic innards can be mighty dark.

“Black Mirror” is set in a future that’s not very far ahead, when electronics have advanced somewhat but are still totally believable in this world of Google Glass and ever-present iPhones.

The series – two seasons of three episodes and a Christmas special – look at the way technology can be used to warp and twist us. Even by ourselves.

The opening episode, “The National Anthem,” is notorious because of its adult content, but it’s gripping and upsetting in an old-fashioned way. A beloved young British princess is kidnapped by terrorists. Their only demand? That the prime minister have sex. On live TV. With a pig.

blackmirrornationalanthem

As the clock ticks, the PM and his staff try to find a way to beat the demand and avoid the horrifying, humiliating and potentially politically disastrous ransom. Meanwhile, TV reporters scramble to find out what’s going on and the public watches, fascinated, as the drama plays out first on social media then on TV. It’s a fascinating commentary on new media and old media and how we shape them and they shape us.

black mirror christmas

I liked “The Entire History of You” but winced at its tale of obsessive love and jealousy in a world where a “grain” of technology implanted in your head makes it possible to review – and share – your memories. The Christmas episode featuring Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” seemed to bite off too many stories.

The best of the episodes I’ve seen is “Be Right Back,” with “Agent Carter’s” Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson as a young couple separated by his death in a tragic accident. But Atwell’s character learns there’s a way of being with her love again, thanks to technology. But what’s the price?

“Black Mirror” probably benefits from the cool, blue-tinged modern Brit TV atmosphere of shows like “Sherlock.”

Not to mention the pervasive feeling of technological dread each episode is infused with.

Classic horror: Universal’s ‘Mummy’ movies

Mummy's_Hand_

It’s hard to imagine how a shambling, vengeance-seeking collection of bones and old cloth ever became a horror film sensation.

And yet: The Mummy.

One of the classic Universal monsters, the Mummy might not have the same level of recognition and shivery admiration as Dracula or Frankenstein or even the Wolf Man, but he’s nevertheless a favorite for some of us, inspiring reboots in recent years and cameoing in movies and cartoons for generations.

Universal’s first entry in the series, “The Mummy,” was released in 1932 and starred Boris Karloff. Made at a time that the world was still fascinated by ancient artifacts discovered – some might say stolen from – ancient Egyptian tombs, the movie was more atmospheric and creepy than monsteriffic.

For me, the best of the Mummy’ moments came with the sequels.

Beginning with the dawn of the 1940s, Universal released four sequels: “The Mummy’s Hand” (1940), “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942) and “The Mummy’s Ghost’ and “The Mummy’s Curse” (both in 1944).

These movies portrayed the Mummy as a bandage-swathed, limping killer, sympathetic when he’s used by manipulative masters but an inexorable killer – granted, a slowly paced one – that stalks young women who are reincarnated versions of his lost love.

Tom Tyler, who had played Captain Marvel and was best known as a cowboy movie star, played the Mummy, Kharis, in the first sequel. This one was perhaps the creepiest for one of the Mummy’s features: Supernaturally dark eyes visible through gaps in his bandages.

The next three films betray the ever-cheaper budgets Universal was willing to allow for the movies. Each of the four sequels made use of footage from the earlier films, but the practice seemed more standard as the series wore on.

Mummys_Tomb

The three final films in the four-movie sequel series starred Lon Chaney – a star for Universal in “The Wolf Man” following in Tyler’s stuttering footsteps. It was a mark of how quickly Chaney’s star had fallen that he went from playing Universal’s most tortured and likable monster to being unrecognizable as the Mummy.

mummys curse

One of the oddest elements of the series was the passage of time, which meant that later installments took place in the 1970s – albeit a very 1940s-style 1970s.

The time jump was nearly equaled in “say what?” by the switch in locales from Egypt to the United States, finding the Mummy and his masters turning up in first Massachusetts then Cajun country.

As much as I love “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” there’s something to be said for the comedians’ meeting with the Mummy in 1955 that, for pure and simple thrills and laughs, very nearly beats the A&C classic monsterfest that was originally released in 1948.

jonny quest mummy curse of anubis

As for those cameos: One of my favorite episodes of “Jonny Quest,” the classic 1964 primetime animated adventure series, is “Curse of Anubis,” in which Jonny and the Quest gang go to Egypt when antiquities come up missing and murders are committed. There’s plenty of human villainy, of course, but striding through the mix is a mummy – maybe the Mummy. There’s no doubt the wonderfully atmospheric scenes of the Mummy stalking victims – sights familiar to anyone who had been watching the Universal films in their early TV showings – inspired plenty of goosebumps.

Not bad for a shambling bunch of bones.

‘Lifeforce’ an oddball futuristic throwback

lifeforce alien vampire

I still remember seeing “Lifeforce” in a theater in June 1985 and thinking, “What just happened?”

The movie – which opened the same weekend as sci-fi hit “Cocoon” and was quickly overshadowed by the triple threat of warm and fuzzy feelings, Steve Guttenberg and Wilford Brimley – was one of the most offbeat big-screen releases of the year.

As I rewatched it again 29 years later, I was struck by a number of thoughts. Chief among them was what an oddball resume director Tobe Hooper had: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the Steven Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist” and this.

I was also struck by how few movies featured a character who was frequently nude throughout. Casual nudity in movies, presented like an aside in the 1970s, was already on its way out by the 1980s. These days you’re more likely to see someone cutting someone’s head off than see a naked woman.

“Lifeforce” was based on a book called “The Space Vampires” and is exactly that. The screenplay, co-written by “Alien” Dan O’Bannon, reminds me greatly of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” A ship – in this case, a long-range space shuttle, manned by an American and British crew – returns with all on board dead. A half-crazed escapee from the shuttle (Steve Railsback, bringing some of his Charles Manson subtlety from “Helter Skelter” and “The Stunt Man”) talks about a trio of irresistible vampires the crew found in a spacecraft hidden in the tail of a comet.

lifeforce may

Meanwhile, the surviving vampire aliens – led by Mathilda May as a mostly-nude seductress – roam around London, infecting strangers and inhabiting bodies.

To continue the “Dracula” parallels, there’s even an insane asylum scene featuring Patrick Stewart, later to achieve fame as Captain Picard and Professor X.

There’s so much to love about “Lifeforce” if you enjoy the offbeat and oddly humorous:

Stewart says “naughty” as no one else possibly could.

Besides Railsback, the two male leads are right out of a “Doctor Who” adventure: Peter Firth is a no-nonsense British government agent and Frank Finlay is an eccentric, white-haired scientist.

aubrey morris lifeforce

Aubrey Morris plays the Brit home secretary. Morris, best known for “A Clockwork Orange,” cracks me up with his reaction shots, looking from one odd person or event to another and wincing a bit every time. Like in the picture above.

Henry Mancini did the score. Henry Mancini.