Monday, June 28, 2010

One more thing

"Spike," about which I posted some wild-eyed ravings here, is now slated for an early August release on DVD... you can however find it now on Netflix and add it to your queue, where hopefully it will not languish as long as, say, all the other saved movies in my queue. (Come on, Netflix, I wanna see "Cronos" and "Cry of the Banshee." And how come "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" is still sitting there? Wah! Although they finally did release "Rabid." That was exciting.)

Anyway. "Spike"'s actual website is here. liked it too.

Not enough plants

I have not had enough photos of my carnivorous plants up lately, in large part because I dropped my camera a few weeks ago and it no longer works. But I need to get a new one and document the full summer glory of my beautiful Sarraceniae. They are magnificent plants and they really love the new rooftop home they've got this summer! In the meantime, here's a newly opened Sarracenia pitcher from spring. So lovely. Check out those veins.

Final Girl Film Club: 'It's Alive' (1974)

There is a nightmare, fairly common to those who have the care of an infant: that if they close their eyes for a second they will hear it walking about. It makes the blood run cold.
- Alice Thomas Ellis,
"Fairy Tale"

My husband asked politely, "May I help you with breakfast?"
"No indeed," I said. I stopped to catch my breath and smiled reassuringly. "I feel so well," I said.
"Would you be offended," he asked, still very politely, "if I took this egg out of my glass?"
"Certainly not," I said. "I'm sorry; I can't think how it got there."
"It's nothing at all," my husband said. "I was just thirsty."
They were all staring at me oddly, and I kept giving them my reassuring smile.


"I'm not yelling," I said. "I don't like this any more. I've changed my mind, I don't want any baby, I want to go home and forget the whole thing."
"I know just how you feel," he said.
My only answer was a word which certainly I knew that I knew, although I had never honestly expected to hear it spoken in my own ladylike voice.
"Stop yelling," my husband said urgently. "Please stop saying that."
-- Shirley Jackson, "Raising Demons"

This month for the Final Girl Film Club, a movie I'd never seen and never had any particular interest in seeing. I don't really want to see a monster-baby movie any more than I want to see, say, a monster-kitten movie (although -- please, God, somebody make one). Scary children are one thing, but scary babies just seems sort of un-cricket. Like Pussy Galore, I have maternal instincts. Still, I did love "The Brood," and the whole Pill-era fear of reproduction is sort of interesting. So I gave it a shot.

The first half-hour of this movie is just about perfect. It opens with the very pregnant Lenore (Sharon Farrell) waking up in the night feeling certain pangs and rousing her husband, Frank (John Ryan): "It's time!" I love the late-night eeriness of this intro, how this domestic scene already feels a little like a horror show -- it's just weird to wake up in the night and have to go to the hospital. The couple is excited but a little scared. Lenore & Frank's son, Chris, is a little freaked out too.

The scenes in the hospital are also pitch-perfect, as Lenore tries to talk to her patronizing doctor (who reminded me of Shirley Jackson's reminiscences about labor, quoted above) and Frank hangs out with other nervous dads in the waiting room. I love the tension of this segment: this is stuff that happens to thousands of people, every day, and yet the sense of certain doom is just inescapable.

And then Lenore's baby is born, and kills everyone in the delivery room. See, you were right to be scared!

From here the movie gets pretty bizarre, as Lenore and Frank's monster baby rampages through West L.A., mostly unseen until it leaps on someone's throat with its fangs out. It seems to be pretty much your basic baby, except with claws and fangs and massive jumping/climbing abilities: it's bald and it crawls, and although it kills people, it doesn't seem to eat them or anything. Its motives are unclear. Rick Baker did the makeup effects, but they're hard to see.

Lenore and Frank, meanwhile, argue about their new baby and its place in their home, in a bunch of sequences that I guess are supposed to indicate anxieties about modern medicine and the modern family. It's implied that the monster was caused by fertility drugs -- or maybe Lenore's oral contraceptives -- or maybe just all the smog in the air. Lenore and Frank turn out to have been considering abortion at one point, just to add one more social-issue layer to things. I appreciate the allegory here, but after a while all this gets boring.

But the killer-baby scenes aren't all that satisfying either. I mean, come on, it's got fangs, but it's just a baby! There's a high-camp sequence where it goes after a milk-truck driver (did they really still have milk trucks in 1974?), in a scene that reminded me of the truck scene in "Night of the Lepus." It ends with milk and blood pouring down the street. I guess it's funny? Sort of?

Another bit, used more than once, involves a character standing in a dark room full of baby toys. Everything looks so sinister! Wait -- did that plastic car just move? Is something else here? You get the sense that director Larry Cohen is immensely pleased with these scenes. At one point, multiple characters enter a dark nursery in turn, alone, just so Cohen can push that button again.

And they do resonate, unpleasantly; it's true that there's something otherworldly and alien about babies, sure, and you never really know what's going on inside their heads, and we project all kinds of anxieties onto them, both about our private lives and about society.

But still -- it's just a dang baby! I don't know about it, people. I'm going to hold out for the killer-kitten movie.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In which I very unexpectedly fall in love

I had no hopes whatsoever for "The Legend of Hell House." I knew nothing about it; I forgot why I put it on my Netflix queue; it just meandered up to the top and landed in the mailbox one day, and later that week I was in the mood for horror and noticed with pleasure that it was only about 90 minutes long. And then I fell in love.

The premise is your basic haunted-house setup: A disparate group of people is asked by an eccentric wealthy person to spend several nights in a house full of nasty spirits. In this case, a millionaire who wants to know for sure if there's life after death has hired a physicist and a pair of psychic mediums to investigate the Belasco house, also known as Hell House. The house is notorious for its nasty spirits: Other people have tried similar investigations and have been killed. Yoicks!

The script is based on "Hell House," a book by the ubiquitous Richard Matheson (the night before I had happened to watch "Somewhere in Time," which is also based on something of his; he is of course responsible for "I Am Legend" and that damn "Trilogy of Terror" story with the Zuni doll). Apparently after Shirley Jackson had a hit with her lyrical "Haunting of Hill House," he got inspired. But unlike Jackson, Matheson does not like things to be quiet and understated. I am usually more of Jackson's way of thinking, but the gonzo baroque fun of this movie proved irresistible. Someone has sex with a ghost, people! What more could you want?

Plus, just look at these frames. Every scene in this movie is just lushly gorgeous. Even when the story is in Maximum Ridiculousness mode, "Hell House" is a beauty.

Our group consists of physicist Barrett and his wife, who is just tagging along; a young medium named Florence Tanner; and another medium named Ben Fischer, (Roddy McDowall!) who is the only survivor of a previous Hell House expedition. Barrett gets right down to business, taking measurements and readings. Florence immediately senses a powerful presence in the house. Ben pretty much keeps to himself; he wants to get through the experience, get his money and go home. The house, though, has other plans for the group.

What I love about this movie is the interpersonal conflict between the investigators as the paranormal situation gets more and more out of hand. Unlike Jackson's much classier story, in which each individual sort of retreats into himself, this movie is all about the fights the characters have. It's almost too glib to say it's like a paranormal "Survivor" but it does focus on the effects of an extreme (and extremely peculiar) situation on a group's dynamics. Barrett (sort of the hero) dismisses Florence as silly, Ben as unhelpful and his own wife as irrelevant; Florence is frustrated because no one's listening to her; and Ben has a lot of tension and fear simmering beneath his calm, sexless exterior.

As for the house -- it's not so much a character as a puppet master, provoking everyone individually into a group conflict. The prevailing spirit appears to be former resident Emeric Belasco, who used the house as a staging ground for appalling orgies: as Fischer describes them, his practices included "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies." (If I were into ringtones, I would love an audio sample of McDowall dryly reciting this sequence -- the final clause just kills me.)

Anyway, all this degenerate behavior seems to have made the house evil, or at least extremely restless. Florence thinks she's got its number: it's haunted by Daniel, an illegitimate son of Emeric's. Is she right, or is the truth something darker? Lonely Ann Barrett finds her way to a very provocative bookshelf indeed and soon starts hurling herself at poor Fischer. Daniel's spirit (if there is one) shows a very, shall we say, personal interest in Florence. Things get more and more bizarre, with a final showdown in a crypt involving a blood-soaked corpse, the hurling of insults and heavy objects alike, a lead-lined room, and a surprising discovery of false limbs. It's a great ride from start to finish.

Plus, just look at this bookshelf. How many movies have prop books like this? "Obsessive Acts And Religious Practices" indeed! "The Worship of Priapus." "The Anatomy of Abuses." I love it. I love "Hell House." Let's go!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Midnight Warrior Attack: What is guaranteed to make you happy?

Dear horror movie bloggers: I love you for updating and giving me reading material and suggesting cool movies for me to watch. But I especially love you for holding participatory events that spur me to quit staring at your sites for long enough to update my own! This is my first Midnight Warriors post for the wonderful The Mike over at From Midnight, With Love. What The Mike does is, he presents a topic, and then we either email him our thoughts or, as in this case, post our own and send him a link.

The current topic is: What's guaranteed to make you happy when it comes to horror, genre or cult cinema? This was a fun topic to kick around. The Mike's list is here; although he kindly insists we do not need to also come up with top 10 lists, I came up with 10 anyway, albeit in no particular order.

1. The woods. Always, anything set in the woods. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and at night I would lie awake and think about all the dark forest surrounding the house. What was going on there right now? What creatures were prowling, leaves rustling, unseen things moving through the dark trees? I sleep with the light on when I visit my parents, always. And my favorite horror movies confirm what I always suspected, deep down: There are awful things in the woods and they are going to get you. My beloved "Evil Dead" captures the mysterious feel of the woods late at night so perfectly; "Cabin Fever" does a nice job too, I think, and even M. Night Shyamalan's maligned "The Village" turns that primal dread into a nifty, creepy fable.

2. A dreamy mood. I love a movie that clings to your imagination like cobwebs afterward, trailing gorgeous sticky shreds of mood. I love being haunted by a movie. "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" comes to mind; after watching it, I just put it on again and let it play while I wandered happily around the house, enjoying the music and the creepy water scenes. "Spike" is another one (with another nice eerie score), and so's "Carnival of Souls." I love watching "Evil Dead" at night because it sends me to sleep feeling that way: like I've already been dreaming. Mm.

3. Comedy, but not too much. Such a tricky one. I love the humor in "Evil Dead" but "Evil Dead 2" is almost too much, and "Army of Darkness" makes my head ache. I just like things to be subtle. "Cabin Fever" though is pretty gonzo and it cracks me right up. I also love the vicious black humor of "Hostel," and the loopy insanity of "Spider Baby." Even "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" has some of the most hilarious moments in horror ever -- I love Pam sitting up in the freezer. And then there are the "Friday the 13th" movies, which aren't quite comedies but are impossible to watch straight-faced. Hm. It's hard to get the balance right, but when it's there, oh baby. "Bubba Ho-Tep, "Re-Animator," honeys, I'm looking at you.

4. Gin and microwave popcorn. I don't keep microwave popcorn in the house anymore, but back in my 20s when I was less worried about my girlish figure, my favorite thing after a tough night at work was to fix a giant gin martini, sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch something scary. These days it's usually a baked potato, but still, it's all about the gin and butter. Happy AE.

5. Children. Scary scary children. The floating vampire kid in "'Salem's Lot." Tomas in "The Orphanage." The entire cast of "The Devil's Backbone" (except for that fab teacher with the wooden leg). Is it some kind of psychological anxiety? Is it just that they're small and could creep unseen around your bed at night? Whatever the reason, nothing's as creepy as children.

6. Being surprised. There are jump scares, there's twist endings, and then there's a genuine surprise. Maybe it's taking a chance on an old BBC movie and having it be so scary I actually spit out my drink in terror at one point ("The Woman in Black"). Maybe it's a twist that's more than a gimmick and actually makes you think ("High Tension" -- I realize not everyone will agree with me here). Maybe it's a movie you expected to hate and ended up loving ("The Wicker Man"). When a movie surprises you it becomes yours in a whole different way.

7. H.P. Lovecraft. Darling, elegant, mannered, racist, disturbing Howard. Just trot out his name and I'm happy. It doesn't matter if it's a faithful adaptation like "The Call of Cthulhu," or something that takes more liberties, like the CoC team's upcoming adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness." Or something that is completely insane, like "Re-Animator" or "Dagon." Or even something that just requires the adjective "Lovecraftian." I am just happy about the man from Providence.

8. Houses. Anything set in the woods has me. Movies set in houses are much trickier. Done well, they bring your worst nightmares to life: something evil invading the place where you should be safe, making you fight for your life in the exact places you have your cozy daily routines. The best ones make you look around, as you sit drinking tea in your living room, and think : "where are the exits? What could I use as a weapon here?" They force you to think about really nasty logistics. "The Birds," of course, is the classic, as is "Night of the Living Dead." I am also a pretty big fan of "Signs," although it doesn't really turn into a house movie until the very end. Done badly, though, the logistics fall apart and everything becomes confusing: this happens in "Ils" and "Dog Soldiers."

9. This.

10. Fear. That's all. Waking up in the night knowing -- just knowing -- that the old dead woman from "Black Sabbath" is in your doorway. Driving down your street and wondering if, like Mary in "Carnival of Souls," you shouldn't be here. The best horror movies get under your skin, expand your perception, stretch your imagination. Sometimes it hurts, but it's good for you.

Wow, this is long. So much happiness. Also, I clearly need to just dedicate a post to "Evil Dead" already. Thanks, The Mike!

Friday, June 11, 2010

I write about old movies

Just another plug for my other blogging project -- over at the LA Times' Daily Mirror site I write a Friday column called From the Vaults, about movies from 1920, 1940, 1960 and 1980. The site is a history blog and most of the posts focus on those specific years, so I figured, why not see how many movies worth watching I can round up? 1920 and 1940 have proven to be particularly entertaining. (I almost wrote another review of "City of the Living Dead" (1960!) but I want to keep this blog a dirty little secret from that blog -- also, I just did not want to think about the intestine scene anymore.)

Anyway, this week it's the Cecil B. DeMille picture "Why Change Your Wife?" which I just cannot recommend highly enough. The dresses! The shoes! Gloria Swanson! The completely awesome title cards! Even the typefaces are beautiful. Even if you don't bother reading my review, do yourself a favor and watch the movie. It's a blast.

In other news, my "Spike" post is now listed on Maverick Entertainment's site for the film, where my site is described as "Review Blog." Yes! Am famous!