Tag Archives: slasher movies

Scream and Scream Again

I wrote something about slasher movies! You can read it now on The Hooded Utilitarian. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Phantasm, Child’s Play… all their sequels are under discussion. Their quirks, their staggering lapses in logic, and their (mostly vain) attempts to make that “kill, kill, kill” formula seem fresh again. Thanks to HU for publishing it!

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

The [totally awesome!] life of Lynda Van der Klok: a love letter to P.J. Soles

By Ashley

I, like many other people participating in this blogathon, am totally enamored with P.J. Soles. There’s just something about her that is so charming and irresistible, despite the fact that a lot of the characters she portrays are very catty, overly perky, backbiting and condescendingly, unabashedly bitchy. It doesn’t matter; once you see that thick golden hair and that mischievous, toothy smile, she’s reeled you in and you’re a fan for life.  I’ve never met anyone who (if they know who P.J. Soles is) dislikes her and I never hope to.

It took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to concentrate on when I wrote this: should I just write about her and her awesomeness in general? Should I write about the first time I saw (and loved) her in Carrie? Should I finally do what’s long overdue and watch Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and talk about how she definitely should have been a lead actress more often? Should I take the less traveled path and write about some of her later work, maybe her part in Jawbreaker?  So many choices! Ultimately though, I decided to keep it simple—I’ve decided to do a visual analysis of her portrayal of Lynda from Halloween.

Lynda is Jamie Lee Curtis’s slightly bitchy, ultra-perky, self-indulgent friend who doesn’t understand why Curtis’s Laurie spends every weekend babysitting instead of getting drunk and hooking up. Soles is the wild child to Curtis’s straight lace, which means that she’s doomed from the start.

We first see Lynda as she and Laurie are leaving the school. Lynda is having a rapid one-sided conversation about cheerleading and makeup while Laurie looks uninterested. This is what strikes me as so amazing about P.J. Soles: even if the characters she plays are annoyingly vapid, backstabbing, or bitchy, she’s just so compelling as an actress that we like her—nay, love her—just as much as we do more pleasant characters.

As I grabbed screenshots for this post I realized that just watching isolated images of P.J. Soles from the movie makes it seem like an average high school flick, right up until the part where she gets the fuck strangled out of her. (I once saw an interview wherein P.J. Soles said that she milked her death for all it was worth so she would have more screen time, which is why we have the delightfully ridiculous continuing moans and gasps even after she’s been out of frame for like 30 seconds.) With that said, I now present:

Lynda Van der Klok: A Story in Pictures

And so there you have it! The life, loves, and death of Lynda Van der Klok. You were, like, totally awesome, Lynda. Totally RIP.

For more P.J Soles goodness check out the week long blogathon over at Day of the Woman!

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Playful Hitchcock

How do you even write about Psycho? It’s one of the most analyzed films of all time, it’s the seed from which all slasher movies sprouted, and it’s an absolute, still-terrifying masterpiece. It’s got a giant reputation, and it’s the one film most identified with the name (and style) of Alfred Hitchcock. Luckily, I don’t really have to write about it! I just have to pick my favorite image, because Psycho‘s the most recent selection for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

One of my favorite things about Psycho (and there are a lot of them) is the way Hitchcock structures parts of the film as little games or sick jokes at the expense of the viewers. It’s a dark, scary movie, to be sure, but you get a definite sense of playfulness in how Hitch toys with film grammar to manipulate the audience. Take, for example, the repeated shot of the patrolman leering at Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from across the street as she urgently tries to trade in her car:

He just stands there, leaning against his car, and the camera glances back at him every few seconds. As Marion completes her transaction, this shot is repeated so many times it’s almost ridiculous, but it’s still effective. Like Marion, we become nervous. It feels like we’re compulsively checking over our collective shoulders and, sure enough, he’s still there. It’s editing that’s more expressionistic than functional, and it helps drag us into alliance with poor, guilt-ridden Marion. Hitchcock also plays around with framing, as in this instantly recognizable shot:

Nobody’s behind her. Not yet, anyway. We’ve been casually watching Marion showering in close-ups and medium shots,when in a barely noticeable transition, she moves from the center of the frame to off in the lower-right corner. This shot is held for about 2-3 solid seconds before we get any background movement or silhouettes. It’s a subtle warning to the audience that someone is about to arrive—or, alternatively, Hitchcock rolling out the welcome mat for his shadow-shrouded killer. It’s yet another manifestation of his giddy, self-conscious visual style.

But neither of these, clever as they are, constitute my favorite shot in Psycho. For that, I go to a reaction shot. Just a plain, superficially unremarkable reaction shot showing Lila Crane (Vera Miles) gazing inside a book. It’s also probably my favorite reaction shot in any movie, ever:

It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s restraint and Miles’ range of expression that they don’t overplay this moment. She doesn’t shriek or gasp or drop the book or anything. In fact, we never find out what she does, because a second later, we cut away to Sam and Norman arguing back in the motel. The next time we see Lila, she’s running to hide in the fruit cellar. The book is unmarked by a title or cover illustration; it just has two little symbols on the binding. Since it’s lying randomly in Norman’s childhood room, it might well be a book of bedtime stories or nursery names.

But we never find out. And since the Bates household is such an inherently creepy place, and since Lila assumes this ambiguous look of curiosity (or is it concern? or surprise? or muted horror?), we’re left to wonder. Was it a manual on corpse preservation? Was it the Bates family’s photo album? Was it hollowed out and used to contain chunks of human flesh? Unless there’s a lost insert shot that turns up someday, we’ll never know. This reaction shot, with Vera Miles’ downturned eyes, is our only glimpse into what might just contain the Bates family’s darkest horrors.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

I Scream, You Scream

During the protracted climax of Ice Cream Man (1995), the title character has a miniature meltdown. He screams, “You kids don’t want to play with the ice cream man? You like his treats, but you don’t stick by him when he needs ya!” This, after he’s committed several murders and a kidnapping. The tirade really captures the mood of this cheap, obscure oddity: child-oriented, sprinkled with occasional pathos, and very messed up, mostly thanks to Clint Howard (Ron’s brother) and his hysterical performance as a homicidal purveyor of frozen treats.

I’m still not clear on who Ice Cream Man’s target audience is. The protagonists—a group of white suburban preteens who call themselves the “Rocketeers”—could be right out of an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Goosebumps, both of which were on TV at the time this film was made. The characters, setting, inane dialogue, and syrupy music all make Ice Cream Man feel like a big-screen analogue of those shows, similarly intended for consumption by kids under age 13 or so.

However, it’s also extremely gory, containing some mutilations, decapitations, a dog killing, and other gruesome sights clearly not meant for kids’ eyes. Plus, it was directed by “Norman Apstein,” aka porno director Paul Norman, whose most recent releases include Hungry Holes (2000) and Sperm Bitches (2001). The film reflects that fact, to some degree, in the weird softcore sequences where the ice cream man is nearly seduced by a local horny housewife (and, naturally, ends up splattered in her blood). So: who was Ice Cream Man intended for? Was it specifically made to be forgotten, and then rediscovered by nostalgic adults over a decade later?

These apparent contradictions are compounded by all the film’s deeply quirky touches. For example, one of the kids’ fathers is a minister with a British accent, and while giving a sermon he appears to have stigmata. (No explanation given, of course.) Later, the film seems to forget that it’s even about an ice cream man, as it follows a pair of cops into the chaotic Wishing Well Sanitarium, where the babbling inmates run the asylum. (As you can guess, this film doesn’t exactly give an accurate portrayal of mental illness.) This is just skimming the surface, though, as it’d take a while to catalog the film’s bizarre glimpses of Stockholm syndrome, police brutality, and amateur pornography.

For all its pervasive strangeness, though, the real crux of Ice Cream Man is Clint Howard as the severely disturbed ice cream man Gregory Tudor. It’s hard to tell where he’s coming from with his erratic, demented performance; he dishes out Fudgesicles as if he’s Igor handing Dr. Frankenstein a human brain. Howard, with his giant forehead and crooked teeth, is perfectly equipped for every tic, twitch, and menacing inflection that defines Gregory’s psychosis. He’s like Pee-Wee Herman, Freddy Krueger, and Larry from the Three Stooges rolled into one. (Ashley adds an uglier, creepier version of Paul Giamatti as a point of comparison.)

Needless to say, Howard makes for a very unique slasher villain, and the film’s only real selling point. I can’t seriously recommend it as anything like a “good movie,” but it’s definitely ironically enjoyable. If you’re into gratuitous gore, it has plenty of that as well, including a memorable hacked-off-heads-as-puppets scenes and what may be the only death-by-waffle-iron in all of cinema. It’s a curio of the mid-’90s, when the late-period slasher film collided with the surge of children’s horror media under the guidance of an experienced pornographer—and the result was deeply, powerfully weird.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Link Dump: #25

I found The Amityville Horror ’79 to be pretty underwhelming overall. I love haunted house movies, but this one wouldn’t fucking end, and it was basically the same series of events repeated endlessly. (The homeowners noticed something odd/violent, then shrugged it off.) Even Rod Steiger as a blind priest couldn’t save it. However, it did have a memorable moment where the black cat above bursts into sight, then disappears forever, as if to say, “KITTY!” (or maybe “Your house is haunted!) So keep that in mind if your house ever starts acting funny. Till then, here are some spooky haunted links:

  • Self-promotion alert! I recently reviewed a truly terrible independent horror movie called M.O.N. over at 366 Weird Movies. I sacrificed a whole hour of my life to watch this shit. Those are the breaks.
  • Moving Image Source has a great piece by Paul Brunick on Joseph McBride, film biography, and Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind.
  • Also from Moving Image Source, we’ve got a great essay by Lindsay Peters on the sci-fi movies produced by the Left Bank filmmakers of the French New Wave! (I <3 Marker and Resnais’s sci-fi, so this piece gets my gold star. Kudos to Moving Image Source!)
  • Some Guy On the Net has a very deep understanding of what makes Toy Story 3 such a win: its depiction of love.
  • This “Famous Objects from Classic Movies” game is fun and addictive, and doesn’t always go with the obvious choices. Thankfully, it has an ending point!
  • If you haven’t glanced over these passive-aggressive emails sent by Donald Rumsfeld, regarding Condoleeza Rice, now is the time. It gives a very interesting (read: horrifying) impression of the people who ran this country for almost a decade.
  • I plan to talk about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in the near future. In the meantime, you can read two great interviews with its director, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, at The A.V. Club and PopMatters. He sounds like a very affable, intelligent, and creative guy, which is no surprise considering his body of work.
  • The Horror Digest‘s Andre Dumas does one of my favorite things: questions received wisdom about film history. Specifically, she wrote about Thirteen Women (1932), starring The Thin Man‘s Myrna Loy, which could lay claim to being “the first slasher.”
  • Five words: David Lynch’s Dune coloring book.

Sadly, the strangest search terms we had all involved rape, so I decided not to post them. I’ll leave you with this: “nope cant find a single fuck.”

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Media, Politics

Welcome to My Nightmare

Slasher movie sequels don’t generally have high standards. As original ideas morph into long-lasting franchises, the tendency is to slip into autopilot and retell the same story; after all, if it was good (or at least profitable) enough the first time, why not again, and again, and again? This is why A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is so refreshing. It’s not exactly groundbreaking or profound, but neither is it boring or lazy.

Directed by Chuck Russell (later of The Blob [1988] and The Mask [1994]), Dream Warriors is thoroughly competent,  but has occasional  flashes of great imagination—like when the balls on a Newton’s cradle float apart to signify a dream sequence, or when Freddy’s skeleton comes to life à la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). So yes, much of its awesomeness derives from its special effects and creatively unsettling violence, but the writing is also unusually sharp for a Part 3. (The involvement of The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont may account for some of this.)

The film’s teenagers aren’t exactly well-rounded characters—each of them gets only a couple of attributes, like “was addicted to drugs” or “likes to make puppets”—but they’re nonetheless plausible and, more importantly, they care about each other. Stuck together in a mental hospital under the dominion of the Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer), the Dream Warriors are reliant on their own camaraderie and teamwork in order to overcome Freddy—as well as the mentorship of Dr. Gordon (Body Double’s Craig Wasson) and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who fought Freddy herself in the first Nightmare movie, and has now returned as an intern.

Dream Warriors further expands on series mythology by introducing Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who has the ability to drag others into her own Freddy-plagued dreams, enabling them to fight him together. Shared dreaming? Yeah, it’s Inception 23 years before the fact and with weirder dreams to boot. They’re dreams where Freddy takes the guise of a sexy nurse, and then uses his own tongues to bind one of the kids above a fiery pit; where he terrorizes the disabled Will with a giant, spike-covered wheelchair; and where he can appear in a dozen mirrors at once. The film’s dreams are unpredictable, irrational, and sometimes terrifying as Freddy potentially looms around every corner.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Dr. Gordon wrestle with a subplot that involves a mysterious nun (OK, she’s actually the ghost of Mrs. Krueger) and the need to bury Freddy’s remains in hallowed ground, all of which leads back to Nancy’s dad (John Saxon), who helped kill Freddy in the first place, and to a gory junkyard showdown. Throughout all of this, the film isn’t quite good enough to transcend its dated genre trappings, but it’s still a curious mix of the slasher formula with team-oriented adventure, surreal visualizations of teen angst, and a dose of comedy—both intentional and otherwise. And it’s definitely better than the first two Nightmare movies.

So if nothing else, Dream Warriors is good for the same reasons that it’s odd: it crosses genre lines while capitalizing on the narrative potential of the Nightmare series’ deadly dreams. The Dream Warriors don’t just fall asleep, one by one, and get hacked apart; they work together through their nocturnal trials, even experiencing moments of real wonder as they share their (sometimes goofy) dream powers. (“In my dreams, I’m the Wizard Master!” says the hopelessly nerdy Will.) And if all that’s not enough for you, Dream Warriors co-stars a young, hot Laurence Fishburne as a sympathetic orderly.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

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.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema