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Frozen: Wolves Are Pussies

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check it out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like wolves at a ski resort.]

Ashley:

So, Frozen! Or as I like to call it Poor Decisions: The Movie (or Douchey White Kids Doing Stupid Things and Paying For It: The Movie or I Don’t Give a Shit If These Characters Die: The Movie or Women Can’t Do Anything Right: The Movie or Nothing Happens for a While Then SOME WOLVES Then Nothing Happens for a While Then SOME FROSTBITE Then Nothing Happens for a While and Then MORE WOLVES and Then The End: The Movie). And now that I’ve stretched that joke to its logical extreme let’s talk about some assholes getting eaten by wolves!

Have you seen Open Water, my friend? It’s that movie that did for swimming what Jaws did for swimming, remember? About the couple who get left out in the middle of the goddamn ocean while scuba diving and [spoiler] totes get eaten by sharks. This is just like that! Just replace “ocean” with “ski lift” and “sharks” with “wolves” and you’ve got Frozen! Oh, and also replace “tension” with “hilarity” and “characters” with “place-holding dead meat” and “actual fear” with “oh-my-god-did-he-seriously-just-say-‘Wolves are pussies’?!?!?!” and then you have Frozen.

If you can’t tell from my endless well of snark, this movie is… well, bad. Really bad. Hilariously bad. Which makes it the kind of movie that Andreas and I just eat up with a big, goddamn, bad-dialogue-and-character-development spoon. We start out with some of the blandest, most boring (yet somehow completely unlikeable) characters ever as they attempt to bribe their way onto a swank ski resort’s lifts without paying full price for tickets. Our characters are as follows: Bro, Girlfriend, and Super Douchey Bro Who Is Jealous of Bro’s Girlfriend. They have real names, but do they really matter?

So Bro, Girlfriend and Douchey Bro (as he will be referred to from here on out) spend the day on the bunny slopes because Girlfriend is useless (you know, ’cause she has a vagina) and can’t even look at a snowboard without falling on her ass. Douchey Bro gets all up in arms about it and is all like “RWAR I WANNA DO SOME REAL MAN’S SNOWBOARDING NOT THIS GIRLY, PUSSY SHIT!” So, through a combination of Girlfriend’s guilt over intruding on precious, sacred Dood Time and both Girlfriend and Bro’s combined wish to appease the beast that is Douchey Bro’s butthurt-ness, they convince the lift operator they bribed earlier to let them take JUST ONE MORE RIDE, DUDE, COME ON, WE PAID YOU A HUNDRED BUCKS, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO NIGHT SKIING, GAWD!?

The operator gives them pretty damn good reasons why they shouldn’t: he’s not just being a killjoy, there’s some serious weather moving in, and motherfuckers need to go. But no amount of logic will stop stupid young adults who are under the impression that they can’t be eviscerated and have their entrails totally fucking eaten by wolves. So, through a series of stupid events, Bro, Girlfriend and Douchey Bro end up stranded hiiigh above the ground in the cold darkness.

So… yeah. They’re up there and it’s cold and junk. So they sit there and Douchey Bro is (surprisingly) acting like a douche. And okay, seriously, these people ARE SO FUCKING BORING. This part of the movie consists of Douchey Bro trying to play games like “Favorite Food” to distract himself from the biting cold (because it totally started  snowing like five seconds after all the lights went out and they became stranded). Is this really your tension building device, Frozen? Really? REALLY?

So finally Bro decides, FUCK IT, IMMA JUMP! This is probably the most interesting part of the whole movie simply because the movie is extraordinarily cruel to this character (who is the most likeable out of this incredibly unlikeable trio of assholes [and he’s only the most likeable because he doesn’t have defining characteristics such as ‘being useless and crying a lot’ or ‘being a dick hole’]). Earlier in the film, when our three fuckers are discussing what they think is the scariest ways to die are, Bro says that the scariest for him would be being eaten by an animal, just seeing it coming and knowing what will happen (movie uses FORESHADOWING! IT’S SUPER EFFECTIVE!). So Bro jumps and is totally 100% okay. J/k, his legs are all:

And so what do you think happens to our Bro? Eaten by wolves, motherfucker. (But not before Girlfriend and Douchey Bro THROW DOWN ARTICLES OF THEIR CLOTHING to try and SOMEHOW help Bro. They are smart, smart people.) And then Girlfriend is all:

And I’m just like “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.” Which is NOT how you’re supposed to respond to someone being eaten by wolves. And honestly, beyond this moment, the movie just really becomes a blur for me; a hodgepodge of obnoxious crying, pointless bickering, anti-climactic shots of frostbite, boring camerawork, and one incredibly, unnecessarily gratuitous shot of Girlfriend pissing herself. So, since my I think I’ve written more snark than even I can handle, I will hand the rest of the review over to Alice.

Alice:

I admit I didn’t come into Frozen expecting visual poetry or nuanced characters; all I really wanted was a good people-trapped-in-a-scary-place movie that, perhaps, would prey on my fear of heights and disdain for the cold. (As a lifelong Minnesotan, I’ve basically been enduring an earthbound version of Frozen during my daily walks to class.) Under those fairly mild expectations, writer/director Adam Green’s third film is a qualified success. Only a handful of scenes actually scared me, but at least the rest of it was ridiculous and laughable enough to be entertaining. After all, as Ashley pointed out, “[wolves]’re pussies, man.”

Between the wolves, the broken legs, the frostbite, and the skin-coming-off-Parker’s-hands thing, Frozen did have some effective gross-out moments, but they were all pretty inert. When Parker (aka Girlfriend) tears her hands off the bar and sees all the congealed blood, she just gazes at them; it’s like she’s thinking, “Huh. I don’t remember them being like that.” In fact, it reminds a little me of Sharon’s brother and his skeletized hands in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. (By the way, will someone please make Death Chairlift: The Chairlift That Eats?) In between these flashes of gore, we get lots of potentially suspenseful waiting. Yes, we as viewers are also trapped in the chairlift… unfortunately, we’re trapped there with fucking Parker and Lynch, as well as their inane, interminable dialogue.

Jesus Christ, Parker and Lynch. If given the choice, I think I’d rather be trapped in that elevator with the assholes from Devil. Or better yet, in that house from Saw II. (With Shawnee Smith! Sigh.) Up in that chairlift, you’re forced to listen to Douchey Bro Lynch prattle on about his past, his future, his hopes, his dreams, and man, is he a boring person! It’s like all of a sudden you’re watching an avant-garde production of Waiting for Godot, where Godot is a pack of wolves and “Shall we go?” — “Yes, let’s go,” is the conversation you’re having with your viewing companion. It’s not like I’m allergic to a little tension-building inactivity, but where was the tension? They were cold, then they continued being cold.

In fact, this cycle of “shot, reverse shot, anecdote, establishing shot” went on for so long that I made up a little song to bide the time. Which is to say that I came up with several new verses to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf,” featuring lines like

He fell to the ground,

It made a loud sound,

Then he got eaten by a wolf…

You get the idea.

Personally, I prefer the writing in Frozen‘s early scenes. Since Green isn’t trying to push the pathos button yet (“Oh no! Lynch was going to marry that girl he just met! Now I care about him!”), we get delightfully silly lines like, “Football games are more than ten minutes. They’re like lots of ten minuteses, you know?” or “I don’t know. She’s naked. Naked chicks are hot.” (Both courtesy of Douchey Bro Lynch.) I also loved the redundancy in Parker’s panicked screams when they realize they’re stuck: “We have to get out of these chairs! We can’t stay up in this chair! Why isn’t the goddamn chair moving, Dan?!” Hey, if Adam Green doesn’t take these characters seriously, why should I?

So rest assured, Frozen has enough of these bad-movie perks to make it worth your while. And at its best, it gets pretty scary: the characters may be loud-mouthed ciphers, but the climactic climb across the chairlift cables would put me on edge if it was being performed by a crash test dummy. As Douchey Bro Lynch would say, I’m a pussy when it comes to heights. The biggest tragedy of Frozen, though, is that it looks so boring. I understand the story’s inherent visual limitations, but seriously, that poster at the top is way more dynamic than the movie itself ever gets! It’s bad enough that the writing’s so painfully generic without having a palette that consists entirely of dull white and murky nighttime blue.

If you’re desperate for a people-trapped-in-a-scary-place horror movie fix, Frozen should suffice, but it’s pretty thin gruel. In closing, here’s a list of lessons I learned from Dan, Lynch, and Parker’s wacky misadventures:

  • Wolves are pussies. (But they will still nom your face off.)
  • In times of crisis, men yell things and do stupid shit. Women cry, piss themselves, and sleep with their skin against freezing metal. (These are called gender stereotypes.)
  • If you’re going skiing, bring a cellphone.
  • If you don’t bring a cellphone, at least let someone know where you are and when you’ll be back.
  • If you don’t do that, you’re one of the characters in Frozen. Dumbass.
  • Sarlacc > wolves.
  • Don’t itch at it, for chrissake!
  • Hang on to every warm article of clothing you have. A scarf hanging from a tree will not help save your boyfriend from wolves.
  • He ran down the slope, / There was a ray of hope, / But then he got eaten by a wolf…

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Lost in The Funhouse

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like deformed psychos at an evil carnival.]

Ashley

Oh, Final Girl Film Club I have missed you. Oh, blogging, I have missed you! I promise, people, things are gonna change. I’m gonna be a better blogger. I’m gonna make up for not posting a single goddamn horror-related thing during October. And it all starts now. Welcome to The Funhouse, motherfuckers. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and released in 1981, this movie is way better than I thought it would be. Opening with awesome homages to Psycho and Halloween, we follow Amy (who looks about fifteen, which makes her nudity in the opening of the movie very uncomfortable; I’ve been told that she was of age when this movie was made. Doesn’t make her any less fifteen-year-old-looking or the nudity any less I-shouldn’t-be-looking-at-this-I’m-pretty-sure-this-is-illegal), her boyfriend Buzz (who looks about thirty which makes his relationship with aforementioned fifteen-year-old-looking Amy creepy) and their two intensely obnoxious friends Richie and Liz to a sleazy carnival.

Our main characters are pretty bland and often extremely annoying (especially Richie, who is the most first victim who was ever first in a fucking horror movie EVER; more on that later), especially compared to the much more interesting interpersonal dramas going on between the carny folk. Buzz, Richie and Liz (and occasionally Amy; she’s the ‘nice one’ which translates out to ‘she lives’) spend most of the time laughing at and making fun of the carnies. There’s a definite class element at play, which is represented visually by the difference in appearance/clothing between the kids and the carnies and is made especially evident during a scene where Amy is having her palm read by Madame Zena, the carnival clairvoyant. As Madame Zena is trying to keep her composure and take her job/act as a fortune teller seriously, the kids spend the entire session laughing rudely at her until she kicks them out, telling them not to return or she’ll “break every bone in your fucking body.” Their smarmy, middle-class snark kind of make you want to see them die.

And see you will. Even though this is a pretty atypical slasher type, it does still follow a structure and that structure is: these kids will die one by one until only the final girl is left. Since there’s only four of them, it takes us a little while to get to the killing but we already know long before then who’s going first: Richie. This kid is so fucking first. It’s ridiculous how first he his. There was a certain point in the movie, there there was a lingering shot on Richie and Andreas and I both said, “He’s first.” I’ve never seen a character be more first in a horror movie before. And he goes on to do things that ensure his status as the most first motherfucker who ever firsted in a horror movie, HE’S SO FUCKING FIRST. And when he dies, it’s some pretty fantastic overkill: not only does he get hung by a conveniently placed rope, but later he gets an axe to the head when Buzz thinks he’s someone else. And now, since I’ve run out of things to say, I turn it over to Andreas.

Andreas

In its own humble, thrilling way, The Funhouse is a pretty sophisticated slasher movie. It has a lot to say about horror, spectacle, sexuality, and what happens when we cross the line between spectator and participant. It’s not the best-written horror movie out there; as Ashley pointed out, its characters – including final girl Amy – are mostly built on grating teenage stereotypes, and they make nothing but bad decisions (like, say, spending the night in a carnival funhouse). But it’s still a fun, fascinating movie because of its unrelenting infatuation with the imagery and environment of the carnival. Beginning with its unsettling opening credits, the movie professes a deep love for the uncanny, macabre artistry that fills the funhouse interior. As one teenager after another was dispatched by the monstrous killer, that love kept me watching.

It’s well over an hour into the film before Richie dies, which might suggest to you that this movie isn’t just about a string of brutal killings. It’s more about the relationship between the local kids, the carnival, and the carnies who run it. The four teenagers wander around the carnival, engaging with its many tableaux: the Dracula-esque magician, the achingly sincere fortune teller, the adults-only striptease, the sideshow with its two-headed cow, and of course the titular funhouse. Each one offers novel, transgressive visual experiences – glimpses into an alternate world where the laws of parents, teachers, and God do not apply. Speaking of the striptease, Buzz pulls out a knife to cut a little viewing hole into the side of its tent, and it becomes about the most vaginal slit I’ve seen outside of, uh, actual vaginas:

The real crux of the movie is Amy’s gradual exposure to just how horrifying the funhouse can be. As she navigates its garish interiors, and as the killer plucks her friends from her side one by one, she’s constantly entranced and frightened by all the creakling, glowing, giggling decorations – like clowns, skeletons, and a giant eye. The film really delves into the gulf between artifice and reality: in light of the danger that stalks them, the funhouse’s smoke and mirrors take on a new, very real meaning. The film goes even further during her final showdown with the killer, which takes place in the deepest bowels of the funhouse. Here, the mechanisms are all laid bare, and we get to see the gears and engines that make its spectacle work. This is where Amy, ragged and nearly catatonic, must truly face her fears.

As you can probably tell from this description, The Funhouse is full of subtle meta-cinematic discourse – i.e., it’s all about how we, as the audience, relate to horror movies. The opening Halloween/Psycho homage starts out in the bedroom of Amy’s brother Joey, which has posters from Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, etc. – all the “old-fashioned” monster movies. Appropriately, the voiceless killer is also first seen wearing a Frankenstein mask as if it were his own face. So the film’s characters are steeped in the history of horror cinema, even as they struggle to survive its present by outmaneuvering a new, Rick Baker-designed monster.

My point is that The Funhouse is very savvy about how horror works, and metaphorically presents the funhouse (and, by extension, the entire carnival) as a locus of real danger and power that should be taken seriously. They’re run by real people, even if those people are different, and don’t exist solely for the amusement of some shallow, horny locals. In this way, the film links up well with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as both films feature families who don’t take nicely to meddling outsiders, and in both films, Hooper’s sympathies are divided. No, the kids don’t deserve to die. But an unsettling sliver of the film wants you to feel bad for the abused, ripped-off, sexually dysfunctional killer. The Funhouse has many shots akin to the end of TCM, where Leatherface waves his frustrated penis chainsaw around in the air, his prey having escaped him.

So ultimately, I see The Funhouse as an admittedly fun, fairly sharp movie. It has some missed opportunities – like where did the subplot with the little brother go? It just kind of cut off halfway through – but made the most of its already creepy setting. And as the ending proves, nothing – not even a fanged, drooling psychopathic carnie – is scarier than that fat, white-faced clown statue in the polka dot dress. Dear lord, deliver us from laughing clown statues. (Fun final fact: you may recognize Elizabeth Berridge, who plays Amy, as Mozart’s wife from Forman’s Amadeus [1984]. At least, I did. Man, she had to put up with a lot of obnoxious guys in the ’80s.)

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Sexy Nihilism in Onibaba

[I wrote the following as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like samurai skeletons at the bottom of a pit.]

Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.

Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.

But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.

I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.

And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.

But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)

All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.

Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.

And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.

With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.

P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!

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Satanists and Suspense in The House of the Devil

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like demonic rituals on the night of a lunar eclipse.]


Andreas:

The suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts. —Gwendolyn, The Importance of Being Earnest

Pity the poor babysitter. Half the time, she’s strung out on LSD and roasts the baby like a Christmas ham; the rest of the time, she’s harassed by psychos calling from inside the house. Or else she dies, and nobody tells mom about it. Or she’s being prepped, again like a Christmas ham, for the satanic rite to end all satanic rites. That last scenario is the crux of Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a film that revels in spinning mundane straw into horror gold. Most movies about unsuspecting young women and satanist covens descend quickly into a slew of impalements and beheadings. West gives us a suspenseful status quo, then holds it, and holds it, and holds it, ratcheting our anxiety up higher with each phone call or mention of an eclipse. Explicit clues as to what’s really going on are sparse, especially for poor Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our plucky and lovable heroine; in short, it’s one of the most thrilling, titillating, and fun horror movies of the past decade.

One of The House of the Devil‘s major assets is its simplicity. Both its title and plot feel generic, as if they were copied from the 1980s Horror Pastiche Handbook, but West breathes new life into them. And not in a creepy voodoo way, either. No, he does it more in a “this man is one of the most innovative writer/directors currently working in horror” way. House is just about Samantha, a cash-strapped college girl who gives babysitting a shot. When the situation gets weird – i.e., the old couple hiring her are ambiguously creepy motherfuckers, and there’s no baby – her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) recommends that she leave, but alas, the prospect of paying for one month’s rent is just too tempting. The rest of the film is just Samantha biding her time… until, as it must, the coven of satanists drugs her for a bloody, pentagram-filled human sacrifice.

So, at least superficially, House has all the earmarks of a typical slasher movie or urban legend: a girl, a house, and the devil. But it’s also one of the least crass, most subtle variations ever done on those themes. Take the first portion of the movie, for example. Not much happens: Samantha confirms her new living place, goes jogging, calls about the babysitting job, waits around, meets with Megan for pizza, etc. But it’s compelling, mostly because West squeezes in so much dense observational detail. Yes, detail about the ’80s (a decade I didn’t live through) but also just detail about normal, stressful college life. It’s in the frostiness and desolation of the campus in the morning. It’s in the way Samantha lounges around on the front steps of the student center. And it’s in her getting sexiled, as well as her mildly contentious relationship with her roommate. It all forms the very realistic groundwork for the heebie-jeebies that fill the rest of the movie.

So in addition to its simplicity, one of House‘s greatest virtues is its plausibility. And for a movie whose plot is basically Halloween crossed with Rosemary’s Baby, that’s saying something. Just by knowing the movie’s title, we expect bad shit to go down, so West engages in the most economical, masterful kinds of suggestion. A desperate voice on a pay phone takes on a sinister pall. And when that voice belongs to the seemingly harmless (maybe too harmless) Mr. Ulman, to whose secluded house1 the girls journey, we infer something sinister about the whole gosh-darn situation. Of course, objectively weird remarks like “I promise to make this as painless for you as possible” don’t exactly help his case. But the age difference factors in here, too: on the surface, Mr. Ulman and his wife (played by cult film mainstay/total fox Mary Woronov) just feel a little, you know, out of touch, unable to relate to today’s youth. So maybe that‘s why he reminds Samantha about ordering pizza several times. And it’s not because the pizza’s actually going to drug her in time for the sacrifice. Maybe?

The bulk of the film, in which Samantha mucks around the house trying not to get bored, is pure genius. In its immaculate subtlety, it’s like Robert Wise’s The Haunting times infinity. Part of the reason is that Samantha doesn’t know her movie is called The House of the Devil, and we do, so of course we’re going to yell, “Don’t go up there! Get out of that house!” to the consternation of our sleeping neighbors. She’s not stupid; she knows she was taking a risk by staying there, as she admits to Megan. But she seriously does need the money, and nothing about the deal conclusively says, “You’re going to get blood poured on you through a goat skull.” It says something more like, “This old couple is kind of odd, and they shouldn’t have lied, but that’s a lot of money.” That’s why this movie is great horror: it manages to have a smart, interesting female lead and still lead her into a dangerous, yet terrifyingly reasonable situation.

Unlike us, Samantha doesn’t know that Megan is dead, but she does suspect that something‘s up. However, since she has no concrete evidence,2 she just thinks she’s losing it, tells herself to “get a grip,” and sits back down to watch TV. Until, say, she hears some weird noises… and the cycle starts all over again. This is a movie about irrational fear. And since it keeps everything at such a low register, the smallest frights feel exaggerated – like the off-putting cadence of the pizza man’s voice (“See you in thirty…”), or the shots that peek into the house through the window, or worst/best of all, the hair in the bathtub. It’s a sublimely disturbing moment would feel at home in Psycho, when Lila Crane is rummaging through Norman’s childhood possessions. Samantha looks into the bathtub, gasps, and after mere seconds of agonizingly sustained curiosity, it’s revealed: numerous clumps of dark hair. It’s so much less gory than what we’d expect, but it’s so jarring and unexpected that, in the long run, it’s way scarier than a hacked-off limb could ever hope to be.

After all of these minor incidents and their chilling implications, I won’t deny that the climax is something of a let-down. But it’s necessary, as well as intensely scary. I don’t really know who/what that goat person was, but the makeup creates just the right blend of a corny urban legend-type satanic priest(ess?) and a “holy shit!” materialization of all the anxiety we’ve been experiencing. And it’s hard not to feel Samantha’s pain as those diabolic snippets flash through her poor head. Granted, we’ve got some shakycam, and Samantha dispatches those satanists with remarkable ease, but let’s not split Mary Woronov’s creepy hairs here. It’s a fitting culmination to all that accelerating unease, finally releasing the tension in one quick and amazingly gory burst. It’s almost so gory as to be a parody of traditional horror climaxes, one that puts the rest of the movie’s menacingly quiet style in perspective.

Whatever the purpose, it’s a satisfying grand finale, leading in to the film’s coup de grace: the hospital scene. Again it’s menacingly quiet, we’re privy to some suggestive reports about the moon, and a nurse utters that crushing last line: “You’re going to be just fine. Both of you…” After that, what is there to say? I’d prefer not to discuss the bleak implications, and instead to say that The House of the Devil is the movie to show that silly friend of yours who whines, “Horror movies are nothing but stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death!”3 It’s a very functional argument for the power of suggestion; it’s an eerie depiction of how hard it is to get rent money; it’s just a great horror movie overall. The House of the Devil is a house of awesome, and with that, I turn it over to Ashley.

Ashley:

I don’t know if I’ve ever sympathized so much with a horror movie heroine as much as I do with Samantha from The House of the Devil. I am pretty much in the same situation she is; desperate college student with next to no money trying to find a place to live. If some old couple said they needed a sitter for their mother right now and they offered me $400 I’d be all over that shit, even if the situation was kinda weird. Sam’s desperation is very real and relatable and she feels like a very real girl. This movie, with all of its slow-burning horror and sluggish pace, would just not work without the amazing cast. Everyone, even the landlady who is in the movie for about five minutes, feels real and the performances are amazing. For me, this film works because I really honestly give a shit about the characters and am emotionally invested in what happens to them.

Samantha, as far as horror film heroines goes, is definitely comparable to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lori from Halloween (who just happens to be one of the best Final Girls in horror). They are both calm, intelligent girls who are victims of circumstance: Lori just happens to be babysitting in the town where Michael runs amok (and also just happens to be his sister) and Samantha is a cash-strapped teenager in a desperate situation who takes a chance on a ‘babysitting’ job. When Megan flips her shit (like a real friend would; theirs is one of the best friendships ever committed to a horror film) and tells Sam that she’s stupid for sticking around after all the weirdness is revealed, we are torn. We know that Megan is right because we know that this is a horror movie but it’s not like Sam, who doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie, is making a completely outrageous decision that is beyond belief. She’s a smart gal in a weird situation but we don’t fault her for it because it’s understandable.

Since Andreas did an excellent job with plot summary/analysis, I want to focus more on isolated incidents of terror/outright creepiness. There are probably three or four major shocks in this film (if you’re excluding the straight-forward horror climax, which I am) depending on how you look at it: Megan’s death, the bodies on the other side of the door, the hair in the bathtub and the last line of the film. But outside of those shocks the film is peppered with such clever, suggestive dialogue and foreshadowing, it makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Megan, who is probably one of the best characters EVER (Andreas says he wants a Megan-centric prequel and I have to agree with him), has some of the best lines including “What if the kid’s from hell?” in reference to the babysitting job. We as the audience take note of that because we know the title of the film, maybe even laugh at it; it seems like a moot point later when we learn that there is no child for Sam to babysit. But then it comes back to haunt us with the final revelation of the film: the kid is from hell.

Megan is also a very well-done example of Death By Genre Savviness; she’s not so snarkily self-aware as some Genre Savvy characters but she knows what’s up. She knows a fucked up situation when she sees it and she states it flat-out:

Sam: It’s $400! For four hours? This equals first months rent and then some! It’s too good to be true.

Megan: Did you ever think it is too good to be true?

Sam: Megan, please. I need the money.

Megan: It’s so stupid. It’s so stupid. I’m so mad at you.

This exchange not only reflects Megan’s genre savviness and Sam’s desperation but also reinforces the friendship between these two. And it makes the next scene all the more jarring and horrible. I am firmly of the opinion that “Are you not the babysitter?” has the potential to go down as one of the greatest, creepiest horror lines ever uttered on film. It could be the new “They’re here” or “Come play with us”. The scene is set: creepy cemetery, nervously smoking a cigarette, random guy with a beard pops the fuck out of nowhere. And Megan’s Death By Genre Savviness lines continue even then: “I almost died. I almost had a heart attack and died.” He doesn’t seem too threatening other than the fact that he’s in the cemetery for no good reason and is trying to make small-talk. The way that line is worded is so odd: he could have said, “Are you the babysitter?” but no, it’s “Are you not the babysitter?” The thing that really gets me about this scene is that it’s NEVER explained in full detail. What part of their Satanist plan included him waiting in the cemetery? Was it to make sure, if their last resort girl decided to bail, that she wouldn’t get away? What was he supposed to do if she had been the babysitter? These questions are never answered and all we’re left with is Megan’s face splattered against the windshield.

Other than Megan and obviously Sam, one of the most important characters in this film is Mr. Ulman. This character is so intensely interesting to me (I told Andreas that I wanted a prequel about Megan and Mr. Ulman; that could totally work, right?) because, again, he doesn’t seem that threatening. He’s odd, yeah, but he doesn’t seem like he would hurt you. He doesn’t even seem like he could hurt you. His desperation to find a sitter for ‘mother’ seems very sad and driven by his wife (whom he sometimes appears to be afraid of) and is a direct parallel to Sam’s desperation. She’s desperate for cash, he’s desperate for her to stay. The first time we hear Mr. Ulman (after he somehow calls Sam back on the payphone she just called him from), his voice is so soft, gentle and yet somehow implicitly creepy. I think that a lot of the things that I perceived as creepy in this film, seemed that way because I knew this all had to part of a Satanist plot; it all seemed way too normal and that was really, really off-putting. The first time we see Mr. Ulman is even stranger; it’s framed in such away that the girls gaze up at him and his face is cut off from view. Again, extremely off-putting.

The horror of this film is deeply entrenched in the concept of Nothing is Scarier: the idea that the building tension and expectation of seeing something creates a more palpable horror than actually showing us the blood/monster/whatever. And it fucking works, man. There were so many scenes where it’s just a static, unmoving shot; Sam is walking around, in and out of frame and we’re just sitting here waiting for something to happen, for something to move, for someone or something to come into frame unseen by Sam but it never happens.We never get that release of adrenaline and so we have tension building until it feels like it’s about to snap. The few moments we do get are all the more powerful because of this. When Sam is outside the door that she almost opens and is speaking through to the nonexistent ‘mother’4, we’re finally treated(?) to something gruesome. And it’s very jarring because we’ve spent the last 50 minutes being teased and wound up by the atmosphere and style of the film.

As an homage to the ’80s, this film is top-notch. I was born at the very tail end of that decade but I watched many ’80s horror films and was then bombarded with the recent deluge of nauseating ’80s nostalgia, throwback wank-fests that are currently popular. Why we as a society feel so attached cinematically to this decade is beyond me because it wasn’t a very stellar decade  for film, especially compared to the ’70s (this is just generally speaking of course; there are a some very good and/or fun films from the ’80s, as with any decade). A lot of these throwback homages that we see tend to glorify some of the dumber aspects of the decade. The House of the Devil captures the nostalgia perfectly without having to be kitschy or garish or completely in your face about it like it’s yelling “REMEMBER THE ’80s, WEREN’T THEY AWESOME?!” As noted by Scott Tobias in The AV Club’s New Cult Canon:

…West evokes ’80s horror while making a movie that’s infinitely more skillful than the ones he’s referencing. And that’s what nostalgia, at its best, can accomplish: It makes our memories sweeter and more perfect than our actual experiences at the time…Because as much as people like myself—and I’m sure West, too—like to reminiscence about our formative slasher-movie days, the reality was hours of precious time squandered on artless, exploitative, retrograde garbage. The House Of The Devil gives at least 96 of those minutes back, with interest.

The House of the Devil is damn near perfect, especially if you’re not a fan of the typical Kill ‘Em All slasher flicks. It moves slowly but with purpose and slowly builds you up; by the time we get to the (somewhat ridiculous) climax, it hardly matters that this isn’t as scary as what we’ve been watching because we’re finally getting the release of tension that we’ve been denied for most of the film. And there must be something said for a film that’s bloodiest part, isn’t nearly as terrifying as the 80 or so minutes of bloodless tension we’ve been served.

1 (of the Devil)

2 I mean, those photos in the closet sure are ominous, and so is Megan’s failure to answer her phone, but (for Samantha, at least) they hardly prove that anything’s going on.

3 Although it can be fun to watch stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death.

4 The idea of the mother not even existing completely freaks me out and brings up a lot of unanswered questions, the most prevalent being why did they even feel the need to tell her that it wasn’t a babysitting job? Why not just lie and say “The baby will sleep throughout the night, you won’t even need to check on it”? And I think the answer to that question, other than the Ulmans are just effing weird, is that if they had done that we wouldn’t have had the scene where Mr. Ulman tells Sam the ‘truth’, which is a very good, important scene and it sets up the rest of the film for us.

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It’s Alive, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Killer Baby

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like anxieties over blood ties with a monster baby.]

Ashley:

As I’ve made apparent, I have a fondness for pregnancy/infant/child horror. It’s a kind of horror that is very palpable to me, probably due to my own deeply internalized fears of pregnancy, child birth, and children overall. It’s Alive (1974) is one of the best examples of pregnancy and family anxieties manifesting themselves in a monster child. The film opens up with a happy couple on their way to the hospital; Lenore Davis is pregnant with her second child. They send their son, Chris, to a friend’s to wait the night and head to the hospital for what is supposed to be a beautiful, happy occurrence. The situation quickly devolves into terror when, upon birth, their infant  slaughters the entire room of doctors and nurses before disappearing, causing a city-wide panic. What follows is as much a well-written family drama as it is a horror story.

The movie does an excellent job of presenting motherhood, and even femaleness itself, as a state of Otherness. From the very beginning after the child disappears from the hospital, the doctors and Frank Davis do a great job of continually oppressing Lenore. Frank  makes decisions about the mutant infant’s fate with the doctors without consulting Lenore first; the doctors give her placating drugs and suggest that she not even be downstairs in her own home due to the stress. Their clinically disconnected treatment of Lenore reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, wherein a woman’s neurosis and depression is deemed a feminine psychosomatic condition and she is ‘fixed’ with fresh air, pills and a refusal to let her work, despite what she wants for herself; she eventually goes bat shit insane. A similar fate awaits Lenore Davis.

The men around her- doctors, officers, and even (or most especially) her husband-do not experience the emotional investment that Lenore does in giving birth to an abnormal child who then immediately goes missing and therefore do not take it into account. They do not consider the psychological implications of carrying a pregnancy to term only to have it end with something arguably worse than the worst case scenarios of miscarriage or still-birth. Her increasingly deluded behavior is set on the back-burner in light of the threat facing the innocent citizens and her husband doesn’t have the patience or emotional capacity to deal with his family. He keeps his son, Chris, at a constant distance, refusing to bring him home or tell him what’s actually going on (which leads to deadly disaster later) and he refuses to listen to Lenore, whether she’s ruminating on how their infant came to be or falling quietly into madness.

Frank spends most of the movie struggling with the idea that the blood flowing through the killer infant’s veins links him irrevocably to Frank and his family. He lashes out at the police officers, unprovoked, demanding to know why they look at him as if it’s his child, before desperately denying any feelings for it;  after shooting at the baby, he tells Chris ‘it’s of no relation to us’. He further denounces any relation to the baby by implying to Lenore that Chris is ‘my son’ and asking her ‘see what your baby did…’ after the child kills a family friend.  This attitude reflects societal ideas about family ties; your family and how they act and what they are reflects on you as a person. Many people want to sever some family ties or disown certain members of their families for not living or acting or being a way that they find acceptable (of course, in the case of rampant murdering, the desire to obliterate ties makes sense). In Frank’s case, making Lenore responsible for the feral infant helps alleviate some of his guilt and stress. Frank, as the patriarch, can claim the normal child as his own, whereas Lenore is the bearer of a rotten fruit.

Despite the clear danger the Davis baby presents, Lenore, in her mentally unstable state, attempts to mother the infant; as was the case with Rosemary, blood is thicker than fear and maternal instincts override very real, dangerous realities. It’s Alive presents us with a foreign femininity that is misunderstood and ignored by male professionals; an image of hysterical motherhood that is both stereotype and reality. What mother wouldn’t defend her baby, her child, her flesh? Besides, he’s not ugly….

Alice:

“I always think that things that are small are more frightening than things that are large.” – Larry Cohen

Babies are supposed to be defenseless. They’re not supposed to attack. But in the world of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, modernity is toxic. So when the Davis family’s second child (the titular “it”) emerges from its mother’s womb, it can already defend itself, and leaves the delivery room a bloody mess. At its core, though, this isn’t a movie about nurses and joggers being cut down by the infant’s fangs. It’s about one family’s disintegration, and society’s complete failure to put them back together again. It’s about a house whose offspring has been corrupted by forces both inside and outside.

But yes, the starting point for that disintegration is a feral baby on a killing spree. The Davis baby’s unusual physiology gives new meaning to the words “family emergency,” and its parents are totally unable to cope. Frank is a white-collar PR man with a bad temper, and he can’t keep up with the onslaught of pressure from every angle: the unscrupulous media; his smarmy, two-faced boss (“He won’t be coming back”); academics anxious to dissect the monstrosity; and the police, who lack his personal interest in the crisis. Everyone’s eager to personally profit from Frank’s situation, forcing him to isolate himself from all of them, his wife included. “Should’ve known better than to trust anybody,” he mutters after a nurse turns out to be a journalist in disguise. With the Davis family marked as different, the scavengers descend.

Lenore doesn’t fare any better. While Frank runs around, fending off attacks on himself and his family, she’s cooped up in her room as a consequence of medical advice. From her initial protests at the hospital to her screams as she’s being carted away – “What does my baby look like?” – she’s systematically ignored and excluded from the entire medical process. The doctors, supposed experts on matters of the human body, use any excuse to discount her opinion, and what choice does she have? First she’s a hysterical mother giving birth, then she’s drugged, then she’s post-partum, then she’s the mother of a mutant child. Her own experience of her own body is discredited because it’s colored by maternal emotion.

Her only outlet is to go crazy, which she does with aplomb. One moment she’s theorizing out loud that untested pharmaceuticals (foisted on her by the medical establishment) could’ve caused the birth defects; the next, she’s laughing like mad at Looney Tunes. Later, she frantically cleans house as if trying to make her family normal again. It’s Alive is about the horror of a family attempting to survive 20th century industrial society. The baby’s existence tears it parents apart along gendered lines, leading the father out into the public domain (gun in hand) while the mother manages what’s left of the home. The mother reacts by shielding her child; the father flatly denies his parentage… until overcome by the infant’s sobs.

The baby, after all, wants nothing more than to be with its family. It visits its brother Chris’s school, then journeys to the Davis homestead, where it symbolically drains several jars of (its mother’s) milk. It mutilates the family cat, but Chris accepts it as kin. “Don’t worry… don’t be scared,” he reassures the baby. “I’ll protect you.” It’s Alive interrogates the very concept of a “normal family,” especially in such an abnormal, unreliable society. Ultimately, for each member of the family, the most “normal” value is the protection of the newborn son. As Carol J. Clover says in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Frank is “maternalized” (86), but it’s not just that he accepts a shift in gender role. He also comes to prioritize the unity of his family above external forces of law and order. This decision arrives too late, however, and the film’s bleak conclusion renders its hard-earned exchange of values totally moot.

While last month’s entry in the Final Girl Film Club, City of the Living Dead, worked mostly because it had oodles and oodles of gore, It’s Alive carefully rations out its graphic violence. The baby is only shown in shadows and quick close-ups, easily disappearing into the corners of the school or Chris’s room – environments where a child is more welcome than the police. The film methodically builds up its oppressive atmosphere so that even the act of opening of a fridge is imbued with terror. In another movie, our attention might’ve been fixed on the baby’s bloodied victims, like the milkman or the family friend Charlie. Here, they’re collateral damage to the central tragedy, practically relegated to afterthoughts. The motif of flashing lights, which fill the screen at the beginning and the sewers at the end, configures the outside world as hostile and intrusive, a massive entity that persecutes the Davis family (including its second child).

In its mood and style, It’s Alive barely resembles a “typical” horror movie; it feels more like a tense family drama. It could even be a cousin to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, another 1974 film about motherhood under assault. Other scenes look more like a Dirty Harry-style cop thriller. One of the keys to It’s Alive’s greatness is its refusal to be pinned down by genre or formula. It even works some dark comedy into its warped approach to childrearing. (For example, the camera lingers momentarily on a glittery sign on the back of a school bus which reads “STOP CHILDREN.”) In this aspect, it’s somewhat like Splice, another parenthood parable I recently reviewed. However, while that movie buried itself in its mad scientist clichés and its yen to go over the top, It’s Alive’s versatile director Larry Cohen keeps the action solidly rooted in the traumas of the Davis family.

Also like Splice, It’s Alive turns to Frankenstein as a metaphor for its conflict. (And as a source for its title, which is no longer Dr. Frankenstein’s “eureka,” but instead a pulpy announcement of impending horror.) During a conversation with a pair of university doctors, Frank ruminates on seeing the Karloff film version as a child, then reading the Shelley novel in high school. “I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?” By the end of the film, Frank realizes that maybe being a father isn’t so far removed from being a mad scientist after all. The film’s beautifully menacing final line – “Another one’s been born in Seattle” – furthers indicts all American families as potentially hazardous laboratories. So who knows? Maybe right now there’s a couple at work in a bedroom, accidentally breeding a monster.

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Maggots, Brains, and Intestines, Oh My: City of the Living Dead

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like innards spewing from a teenage girl’s mouth.]

Ashley:

I’m honored (?) to say that this is my first full Lucio Fulci film. My foremost thoughts on the film are: ewwwwwwww. This isn’t a particularly good film however the things it gets right, it gets really fucking right. What is this movie good at? Grossing me out and scaring the fuck out of me. And as I told Andreas while we were watching the movie, at the end of the day, sometimes I just want to be scared to fuck and back. There are lots of horror movies or ‘psychological thrillers’ or whatever the sophisticated-minded want to call them that try really hard to be scary and fail at it while still being very good movies. But this movie really knows how to scare. The insane ability for the zombie(ghostwitches?) to teleport and pop the fuck out of nowhere at any time demolishes any sense of safety. Characters who you expect to make it to the end get brutally savaged and I’m just sitting here like WHAT THE FUCK!?

I was so tense for almost all of the movie and a lot of it came from how completely disjointed and confusing everything was; the narrative is very jumbled and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sadly, my exposure to Italian horror extends to Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Deep Red. Suspiria is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and yesterday I was thinking about how City stands up next to it. They both have shaky, almost throwaway plots but both have something to make up for it. While Argento’s film was a masterpiece of beautiful, stylized Technicolor death, Fulci’s is full of unrelenting, straight-up nauseating gore. I have never been as disgusted by a film (in a oh-my-God-this-makes-me-wanna-vom way) as I was with City of the Living Dead.

Part of that could be because I don’t seek out extremely gory films but most of it was because that shit was just GROSS. But gore, by itself, doesn’t really scare me; it squicks me out but it doesn’t scare me. This film has the right mixture of extreme violence and gore and suspenseful terror. I haven’t seen Fulci’s Zombi 2 but I have seen the infamous eye-gouging scene; it has the same kind of drawn-out suspense as a very similar scene in City. The only big differences being that the splinter of wood is now a drill and the eye is just general head area. But, man, is that shit drawn out and disgusting! You just watch and watch and watch until it happens. And when it DOES happen, you still just watch because it doesn’t cut away and it’s nauseating and terrifying and strangely gratifying. If a film is going to go the opposite route of less is more, if they’re going to show me scary, gross shit, they better fucking show me scary, gross shit. And Fulci definitely delivers.

I enjoyed this film despite the fact that it wasn’t all the great because it really and truly scared me. It made me feel unsafe in a lot of ways; I had the feeling that Fulci was more than willing to expose the viewer to anything no matter how disgusting or horrifyingly violent and that is scary.

Alice:

My voodoo priest grandfather used to have a saying about zombies: “In your head, in your head, they are fighting.” After watching Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, I’m starting to see what he meant by that. I’m not too well-acquainted with Italian horror; like Ashley, my experience goes as far as some Argento and Bava. So although I kind of knew where Fulci was coming from, in terms of poorly-dubbed English, violent deaths, and “WTF?” editing, nothing could really prepare me for, well, the grossness of it. Because, as Ashley says, “ewwwwwwww.” We’ve got guts being vomited up, brains ripped out through the backs of heads (multiple times!), icky worm gunk smeared in a girl’s face, a sex maniac’s brain impaled with a power drill, gale-force maggots – all the yucky shit you could ask for, and it’s all on-screen. Fulci does not hold back when he has the option of holding forth.

All this vomitrocious vileness takes place in Dunwich, Massachusetts, or at least in Fulci’s secondhand version of it. This puts us squarely in a warped, Italified version of Lovecraft Country, and many of Lovecraft’s pet themes are present in an obscured, garbled way. A town dominated by undefinable, unpredictable evil? Check. The imminent demise of mankind at the hands of forces from beyond something? Check. The triumph of chaos and insanity over cool-headed reason? Check, check, and double check. The madness is unleashed (somehow, I guess) by Father Thomas, a priest who hangs himself in a graveyard – and continues hanging himself aggressively throughout the rest of the film. The plot never gets past much more than an outline, especially since it has several time-consuming, tangential subplots that go nowhere. You’d think the infamous head-drilling scene is caused by a zombie, right? Nope, it’s an angry father… who’s never revisited again, but probably becomes a zombie at some point.

But Fulci (who co-wrote the film with Dardano Sacchetti) doesn’t appear to believe in exposition, except of the vaguest, most uninformative kind. The first few scenes introduce several seemingly important characters – a medium with a criminal record, a Shaft-like hard-boiled cop – who immediately disappear from the film, as well as several others who aren’t put into any coherent context. But, I admit, faulting City of the Living Dead for not making any sense is missing the point. Its plot holes and baffling ending are among its charms, just like the hilariously overacted dubbing or the many, many random close-ups of eyes. There’s certainly an element of so-bad-it’s-good at work here, alongside some so-well-done-it’s-scary, and of course the so-gross-it’s-oh-lord-stop-that. Let’s call the quality “uneven,” and leave it at that.

For all its inconsistencies, City of the Living Dead does have some moments of Argento-esque beauty. Twice we see houses drip blood, and both times it’s scary; the second time is worse, because it’s dripping into milk, and eww, you can’t drink that milk now. A mortician paints a corpse’s lips, which makes for a good eerie/beautiful moment, but doesn’t quite wipe that “died of fright” look off her face. And the multiple occasions on which women’s eyes start bleeding? Argentastic. (Fulci clearly doesn’t believe in overkill; if an effect looks disgusting the first time around, he has no compunction about repeating it.) I also have to give kudos to what I saw as the most artful part of the film, namely its use of off-screen sound. Sure, horribly scarred zombies are frightening, but it’s ten times worse when you can hear their yowling yet have no idea where they’re coming from. It’s impressive when a movie can show everything, and still have room left to scare you through suggestion.

I’m not willing to commit myself and say that City of the Living Dead is a good movie, or even that good of a zombie movie, but I did enjoy the further taste it gave me of Italian horror. Italian cinema is an inherently strange realm, from Visconti to Pasolini to spaghetti westerns, all the way to Lucio Fulci. To generalize outrageously about Italian movies: nationalities frequently get mixed up – and indeed, City features lead performances by an American, a Brit, and a Swede – as do accents, time periods, and genres. (As noted, City features brief glimmers of blaxploitation.) Fellini is known for his self-indulgent excesses; Fulci matches him, but instead of excessive sexuality or visual style, it’s in putrescence and bodily fluids. Make no mistake: this may not be a “good” movie, but it’s still terrifying. As Bob’s head was pulled closer and closer to that drill, I waited for the last-minute rescue, for Ann to stop her father… and it never came. After all the suspense, that drill still went straight through Bob’s head. At the end of the day, that’s kind of how I feel about this movie.

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Spider Baby: black comedy and cannibal children

[I wrote the following as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like degenerative mental illness in a heavily inbred family.]

The film is called Spider Baby, depending on who you ask. Some may prefer The Maddest Story Ever Told, while others may go with Cannibal Orgy. These titles already give you a glimpse of the film’s true nature: excessive, sensational, manic. It’s an ultra-low-budget B-movie with the best of them, for sure. But while lots of the ’60s horror movies I’ve sat through have been slow, grainy exercises in dullness, Spider Baby takes off into high gear from the first few seconds. Hell, the opening credits, sung by Lon Fuckin’ Chaney, Jr., give you a taste of totally absurd, campy horror that tops some feature-length films.

Cannibal spiders creep and crawl
Boys and ghouls having a ball
Frankenstein, Dracula and even the Mummy
Are sure to end up in someone’s tummy

Spider Baby is an unexpectedly self-aware movie, as its theme song casually references the horror movie tropes about to be employed. Even if Chaney was a friendless alcoholic nearing the end of his life as he sang it (at least according to interviews I’ve read), this opening is nonetheless infused with a strange sense of fun, and the filmmakers’ knowledge that they’re about to dollop out some tricks and treats. But not even the invocation of all these past monster movie muses can prepare the viewer for the bizarrerie that follows. The song is just a stream-of-consciousness gateway to the abyss.

In true horror movie style, the story is prefaced by an official-sounding monologue. A man sitting comfortably in what looks to be a den introduces the Merrye family and their namesake syndrome, both of which he claims were wiped out 10 years ago. This, we later learn, is Peter, who with his sister Emily, their lawyer Mr. Schlocker, and his pretty assistant Ann, have come to take possession of the Merrye household. However, they’re opposed by the Merrye children – the childlike, knife-wielding Elizabeth and Virginia, and the large but animalistic Ralph (Sid Haig) – and their paternal chauffeur, Bruno (Chaney). Herein lies the film’s driving conflict, but it’s one which is never expressed in anything but the most unpredictable and off-putting ways.

And before any of that can happen, we enter the Merrye estate alongside a courier played by Mantan Moreland, a black actor best-known for his bug-eyed, broadly comic, racially stereotyped roles in 1940s comedies and Charlie Chan movies. Moreland’s brief performance raises the possibility that this will be a light, jokey horror-comedy. Then he’s attacked, mutilated, and murdered by Virginia, who insists it was all part of her “spider” game. When we dolly in on his ear, which drops lightly to the floor, we realize it won’t be that kind of movie – yet the levity continues as Moreland flails in the window, and when Elizabeth walks in on the scene, she plays the big sister, acting as if Virginia’s been leaving her roller skates sitting around. This radical dissonance between the onscreen violence and the characters’ reactions is just an initial sample of the film’s perverse humor.

Writer-director Jack Hill, a purveyor of cult favorites who’d go on to direct Pam Grier in Coffy and Foxy Brown, delights in sick jokes like this. A skinned cat is passed off as rabbit for the Merryes’ hungry guests, and as Virginia’s spider psychosis threatens addition lives, strains of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” punctuate the soundtrack. Hill plays similar games with audience sympathies: we pity the Merryes, whose “happy” family and way of life is about to be interrupted, but that doesn’t keep us from screaming “Don’t go in there!” as Schlocker investigates the house. Schlocker is a bureaucratic slimeball, sure, complete with an omnipresent cigar, but Hill still compels us to worry for him. The kids, of course, are never in any real danger – they’re the source of the horror. In case it’s not clear, this is an intentionally confounding movie.

The greatest object of our pity, anyway, is poor Bruno. Although he shields and enables murder after murder. He’s an anti-hero in the mold of Seymour from The Little Shop of Horrors: stuck in a bind (a promise he made to the children’s dying father), he believes it’s his responsibility to protect this brood of psychotic cannibals, as well as their aunt and uncle (who dwell in a pit in the basement… it’s that kind of movie). Since Bruno doesn’t actually kill anyone on his own, it’s easy to feel sorry for him, and his final decision – to enact an explosive mercy killing – hails back to the pathos at the end of Of Mice and Men. (Chaney played Lenny in a 1939 film version, opposite Burgess Meredith.) Chaney, never an especially subtle actor, still brings all of his conflicted devotion to the role of Bruno, and is the emotional cornerstone of the film.

But nothing can top the performances of Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner (neither of whom had much of a career outside of this) as Elizabeth and Virginia. All good horror fans know that children are evil. But who knew children could be this evil? They’re especially effective because they don’t seem aware of their sadistic, homicidal natures; they just act like little kids, and Virginia talks about her spider game as innocuously as if it were jump rope. They’re as fickle, irrational, and lacking in self-control as real children – they’re pure id. (It’s worth noting that during production, Washburn and Banner were about 21 and 18, respectively.) The civilized intruders don’t even appear to notice the giggling, rosy-cheeked menaces right under their noses. And by the time they do, it’s too late.

Spider Baby is a pretty audacious horror movie in how it brings four “normal” people into an obviously, outrageously abnormal situation, and shows them relatively at ease in it, a juxtaposition that would feel at home in a Luis Buñuel movie. It’s also a haunted house movie par excellence, but extends the usual twists to the point of hyperbole. Psycho had one jittery motel owner with some stuffed birds and his mother’s preserved corpse saved for the big final scare. Spider Baby has a jittery chauffeur, three psychos in plain sight, two more downstairs, birds mounted randomly on the wall, and the father’s skeleton revealed still in his bed halfway through the film. At 81 minutes, it wastes no time, ramping up each successive scare into more and more over-the-top territory – and considering the minimal resources and $65,000 budget, that’s damn impressive.

So what to make of Spider Baby? It’s far better and more interesting than I expected. The title smacks of cheesy, ridiculous, low-budget schlock, and while these words all applicable to varying degrees, it’s also a seriously scary and fucked-up movie. The Maddest Story Ever Told isn’t just one of those comically superfluous subtitles; it’s a surprisingly accurate description of the film’s ambitions. And the moniker “spider baby” can be applied not only to Virginia, who gleefully catches “bugs” in her web of innocence, but to Peter and Ann’s child as seen in the disturbing epilogue (with one of the best-deserved “THE END?” twists of all time). In this final scene, the film thrusts all of its bloody depravity and wicked humor in the face of 1960s Middle America and its petty little dreams. Even after the climactic destruction of the haunted house, the movie cunningly says, the horror may live on in quiet suburban backyards. And that’s scary.

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