Tag Archives: horror

Picture Perfect

It was as if the painting had sweated a dew of blood.

This has to be one of the most infamous, gruesome images in horror film history. And rightly so! Congratulations go to painter Ivan Albright for creating this indelible bit of 1940s psychedelia. It is, of course, the titular objet d’art from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), with Dorian’s iniquity embossed on its very surface.

I recently revisited the film so I could write about Angela Lansbury’s performance for The Film Experience, and I was shocked by how icy it becomes after her character commits suicide. Emphasis shifts from faces to furniture, with the camera gazing over mirrors, statuary, and tiled floors. Even the visage of Hurd Hatfield, who plays Dorian, acquires an inhuman sheen. The whole movie becomes a mausoleum, a final resting place for both portrait and subject.

A final note on Dorian Gray’s writer-director Albert Lewin: the man really had a thing for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (Also George Sanders, who starred in 3/7 of his films.) Observe the following, from Dorian Gray and Lewin’s later film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman:

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Mummy Dearest

A lot of horror movies require you to dig for subtext. Not so with mummy movies, however! In something like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959), the monster is a walking mass of anti-colonial rage, his significance lying right on the textual surface. This is a paranoid fantasy grown out of imperialist guilt—a “Return of the Oppressed,” to paraphrase Robin Wood. And the mummy here is an Egyptian variation on the golem, a weapon of revenge acting on behalf of an ethnic Other.

The plot of The Mummy is generated, beat for beat, by the same formula as Universal’s Karloff-starring Mummy, or miscellaneous creature features made between the two, or even slasher movies of the ’70s and on. A family of genteel archaeologists violates a tomb; a sinister Egyptian tracks them back to England; and then they’re murdered one by one. First the patriarch, who’s already mad from the sight of the reanimated, shuffling mummy. Then his brother, strangled to death at the family’s estate. And finally the son, played by Peter Cushing, who proves troublesome. He’s our “final boy,” you see.

I enjoy Cushing as a horror hero because he’s so unconventional. Hatchet-faced with a receding hairline, he always looks a little skeletal and cerebral; nothing red-blooded about him. In The Mummy, he even gets a limp as a result of his father’s tomb-violating zeal, compounding this impression of frailty. He’s mutilated by England’s decadence just as he represents its future. He’s a pale contrast to Mehemet Bay, the mummy’s fez-clad puppetmaster, with whom he argues archaeological ethics. The latter is played by George Pastell, who’s actually from Cyprus, but swarthy enough to be Egyptian by Hammer standards.

This “swarthy enough” mindset pervades The Mummy’s casting, which colonizes Egyptian identity on a metatextual level. The mummy himself is Christopher Lee, who’s British to the core but spends most of his screen time plastered with bandages. (Lee would go on to portray another ethnic villain, Fu Manchu, in the mid-’60s.) And Cushing’s wife is the white-as-snow Yvonne Furneaux, yet she turns out to be a dead ringer for Ananka, the ancient object of the mummy’s forbidden love. It’s racial sleight of hand, encompassing this “Egypt vs. England” tale entirely within the sphere of whiteness.

In the end, of course, Egypt is defeated. The wife is used as bait—a “beauty killed the beast” tactic familiar from King Kong and films of its ilk—resulting in Bey’s death at the mummy’s hands, then the mummy’s re-death via police ammunition. His battered body tumbles to the bottom of a rural bog, the ideal resting place for a monster that might need to be resurrected should a sequel roll around. This resolution morally validates Cushing, his family, and their actions. It insists on the legitimacy of their cultural theft, since 1) they’ve reaped knowledge and 2) Bey’s revenge has been so disproportionately violent. No need to dig: this is as semiotically explicit as horror gets. “Hail Britannia,” indeed.

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Spooky Specials: “Candy Bar Creep Show”

I was an absolute Rugrats junkie from around ages 3-8. It was my all-time favorite cartoon on Nickelodeon or any other channel. Unlike so many of the other Animation Renaissance cartoons I grew up watching, Rugrats wasn’t riddled with adult themes and double entendres. It had a pureness that other shows lacked. It was just babies misinterpreting the world around them, as babies do. With Mark Mothersbaugh’s tinkering, tumbling soundtrack and the soft-colored environments and characters, it captured an essence of early childhood that I’ve rarely seen outside of a Miyazaki film.

Accordingly, Rugrats’ Halloween special isn’t bizarre or full of disturbing imagery. Instead, it shows how very small children might interpret spooky happenings. The special follows the traditional Rugrats format—two 11-minute segments—but only the first,”Candy Bar Creep Show,” is specifically about Halloween. We start with a classic Rugrats close-up that turns out to be an internal view of a pumpkin being carved up. It’s Halloween night and the adults are preparing the house for trick-or-treaters. Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil all watch curiously as the grown-ups don costumes and construct a strange tent in the backyard. Once Angelica comes to tease them about how they won’t get any Reptar bars, they become even more curious about what the adults are up to (Angelica mentions that it’s Halloween and that she gets to go trick-or-treating, but when they ask her what that means, she says she doesn’t know other than she gets candy out of it).

This childhood naïveté and the curiosity that results fuel most of the Rugrats’ best episodes. The babies have no real concept of fabricated fears like ghosts and zombies and haunted houses; babies don’t understand what Halloween is. That’s why you can wheel a 6-month-old around on Halloween night and they’ll be unfazed but some 5-year-olds get paralyzed with fear when they see scary costumes. And the segment plays upon this beautifully. Once the babies see kids screaming and running out of the haunted house holding Reptar bars, they deduce that screaming in there will get them Reptar bars too. (Occam’s razor, ya know?)

So they go on a mission to obtain their own Reptar bars, unknowingly setting Angelica and her friends and even Grandpa up for the scare of their lives. They don’t have the learned fear of fake eyeballs, worms, or skeletons, so to them the haunted house is just another playhouse. But when Angelica sees the twins’ distorted, spaghetti covered hair and Tommy covered in a ghostly sheet, she runs screaming into the night. Grandpa comes to investigate and gets the same treatment while yelling the most hilarious old-man lines ever. (“LEAPIN’ LIBRARIANS!”) At the end of the night, the babies come out on top, lugging huge bags of candy into their playpen while everyone else warily eyes the haunted house, wondering what specters might lie within.

Rugrats may not hold up to repeat adult viewing as well as some of its contemporaries, but certain episodes manage to strike just the right sweet, nostalgic nerve for me. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with things that were considered over my head. Rugrats gives me that feeling of childlike sweetness in my belly and this Halloween episode in particular reminds me of all the innocent curiosity I had in toddlerhood.

Next week, however, things get a bit (read: much) darker with Rocko’s Modern Life’s “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead! A Thriller.” Stayed tuned, boos and ghouls!


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Thicker Than Water

Once the auteur laureate of America’s outcasts, Tim Burton has lately become its leading purveyor of “Hot Topic movies”: glossy, soulless, and ready for merchandising. So I was nervous going into his latest film, the horror-comedy Dark Shadows (2012), expecting something strident and obvious. Instead I found a much better (and much more frustrating) movie than I’d imagined, one dotted by tantalizing highs and intoxicating performances but hampered by inconsistency. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s scary, but it bungles a lot of tonal shifts and never decides whether or not to take its own soap opera seriously. “Mixed bag” might be the phrase I’m looking for.

The beginning of the film sets a thick mood through Bruno Delbonnel’s smoky, monochrome visuals and the Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin.” But Johnny Depp’s overwrought narration, introducing us his centuries-long feud with witch Eva Green, immediately gave me pause. His words are pure melodrama, yet his voice is so arch and affected, as if he can’t conceive of an 18th century romance without an ironic slant. This informs his whole performance, as manifested in his raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Contrary to critics like Andrew Street, this isn’t “flamboyant over-acting” at all. Depp’s very dry and restrained here, a far cry from his manic Jack Sparrow. But his detachment thwarts the film’s would-be tragedy.

Another stumbling block is Victoria, the nanny played by Bella Heathcote. Initially the film’s (and Depp’s) focal point, she recedes farther and farther into the background as the story’s given over to the cursed Collins clan. She never gets much of a personality, functioning mostly as Depp’s anemic object of desire. This has grave consequences during the climax, whose impact hinges on our investment in their relationship. Depp must bite his true love’s neck to save her life, and it would be so carthartic if Victoria wasn’t so underdeveloped. But she is, so it ends up feeling like the dramatic equivalent of orgasm denial. Like I said, it’s a frustrating movie.

I could expound on other shortcomings: the dumb-ass final shot, looking for all the world like a Friday the 13th sequel tease; the hippie caricatures even broader than those in Wanderlust; and Chloë Moretz’s burn-out brat routine, which gets old fast. (Not to mention her last-second “I’m a werewolf!” revelation.) But I’d rather linger over the bits and pieces that I flat-out loved. Like a clockwork diorama of howling wolves, or a deadpan POV shot of a square waffle. Sometimes I was even happily reminded of vintage Burton. In flashback, Victoria’s parents institutionalize her while standing in a rigid American Gothic pose, à la the prologue to Batman Returns. And at the climax, Green swings her head and moans, “Excuse me!” as if channeling Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice.

In fact, Green supplies a lot of the movie’s high points. Her performance is ghoulish, voluptuous, and wickedly funny. During the Collins ball, for example, she struts into the mansion wearing a devil-red dress, complemented by nebulae of purple and pink light—a visual distillation of Burton’s gloomy, gothic 1972. When the time comes to fight, she does so savagely, bringing a house full of horrors down on the vampire she still loves. (On the few occasions Dark Shadows opts to be scary and only scary, it succeeds.) Green isn’t alone in her entrancing bitchiness, either. Burton veterans Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both carve out delightful supporting turns as, respectively, a purring matriarch and the boozy psychiatrist she employs.

I don’t know if I would call Dark Shadows a “return to form,” but I also don’t think it has to be one. It’s a pleasurable movie, littered unpredictably with beauty and terror, which is enough. Despite its bad jokes, waste-of-time subplots, and limp denouement, it’s proof positive that Tim Burton, our Edward Gorey of the big screen, still has some blood left in him. Maybe next time the wit and visual invention won’t be quite so scattered.

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Link Dump: #81

This week’s spooooky kitty is from Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man, which also blessed us with this image of Rupert Everett. And now, some links for early October…

Some spooooky search terms: “10 kid pussy,” “man and women rectum,” and the wonderful Yahoo! Answers fodder (or maybe rejected Macbeth dialogue?) “does wanking make a black spot under nipple appear.”

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10+ Horror Discoveries

Here are the ten best old-to-the-world, new-to-me horror movies I’ve watched so far this year:

10) Society (1989): Beneath the TV-quality production values, beneath the hairstyles and outfits that scream “late ’80s,” Society is a devastating gross-out satire. In fact, it feels even better-tailored to a post-Occupy America than to the socioeconomic climate into which it was released. I’ll never hear the word “shunt” again without a shudder.

9) Slither (2006): Here’s another movie that plays with gore like Jackson Pollock with dripping paint. It’s more or less a Night of the Creeps remake, but shifted from a college campus to a small, rural town, and with the added bonus of Michael Rooker at his most intimidating/squidlike.

8) Cube (1997): In the middle of this movie’s titular cube is a room with a lethal, sound-sensitive trap. And the scene in which five intrepid prisoners sneak through it made my knuckles the whitest they’ve been all year. This is existential horror done right on next to no budget: tense as hell, and very cruel.

7) Demon Seed (1977): Infamous as the “computer sexually assaults Julie Christie” movie, this is… that movie, and exactly as icky as its premise suggests. Plenty claustrophobic, too, as the amoral Proteus—speaking in the chilly voice of Robert Vaughn—closes in around his prey, wielding her locked house as a weapon.

6) Planet of the Vampires (1965): One of the many blueprints for Alien, this Bava space odyssey focuses less on plot and more on style, with impressive results. It’s a near-ballet of bold colors and production design, gradually descending into a morass of dread.

5) Lost Highway (1997): I actually found this a tad disappointing compared to other Lynch, but his movies tend to grow on repeat viewings, so I know I’ll return to it sooner or later. In the meantime, the performances of Roberts Blake and Loggia are enough to pull this noir-horror Möbius strip onto my list.

4) Suicide Club (2002): I still can’t make heads or tails of Sion Sono’s J-horror police procedural, but that’s much of its charm. Sometimes it’s a digital conspiracy thriller; occasionally it morphs into a rock musical or, at its best, a darker-than-dark absurdist comedy. Always mystifying and incredibly bloody.

3) Parents (1989): This was certainly my greatest surprise. I’d never heard a peep about Bob Balaban’s weird suburban fantasia before watching it, but I was instantly drawn in, disturbed, and enraptured by its child’s POV and nightmarish ambience. Career-best work by Randy Quaid as the father, too.

2) The Phantom Carriage (1921): I expected Victor Sjöström’s moral fable to be “good,” but it’s actually gonna-be-watching-this-for-years great. Shot like a series of grim Scandinavian woodcuts, it mines life mistakes for all their inherent horror, and ends with one hell of an emotional sucker punch. Plus it inspired the “Heeere’s Johnny!” shot in The Shining.

1) Tales from the Crypt (1972): This Amicus anthology is everything I want from a horror movie and more. It starts out creepy (with a killer Santa Claus!) and rises from there; it has an ace British cast, from Ralph Richardson to Joan Collins; and it has a few of the most morbidly ironic endings I’ve ever seen. A few of the stories here are still giving me chills.

And a few more… Signs (2002) is tremendously atmospheric, and preys on a childhood fear of mine; The Hitcher (1986) proves that Rutger Hauer can, if he so chooses, be the scariest man alive; Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) is painfully uneven, but worth it for the Dante, Miller, and wraparound segments; Frankenhooker (1990) is gleeful, trashy fun; and finally I have no excuse for The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011). They’re just ridiculously watchable.

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Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.


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