What’s in a good horror film? The answer to that is no longer as it once was in the days of the movie palaces and the flickering lights and cheap hard on your ass seats of the neighborhood theater. Horror starts out classical but then becomes regional and generational (if that’s a real word ).
I was fortunate enough to have been in that wave of baby boomer offspring to be around during what has been called “The Monster Kid” era. This describes the early sixties when horror on television was a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence. Local Channel 9 had a 7-9PM slot called the “Million Dollar Movie”. Sometimes the movies were made for much less than a million pennies. Independent regional stations were just beginning to make a dent in the viewer psyche and sponsors money bags so they would often have to pick one film for that slot and run it for the entire week. Twice on Saturday afternoon. The joy this gave me was that if they had It! The Terror From Beyond Space on Monday — I could watch it as many times as my mom would let me throughout the week. Add to this the many hosted horror packages on the weekends like Jeepers Creepers and Chiller Theater a kid of the early sixties could eat up horror almost as much as sugary breakfast cereals.
A plus for many of us at the time was that we were exposed to four generations of horror films at the same time. Not only could we enjoy the local fare at the drive in or hard top with titles like The Haunting by Robert Wise or Hammer’s Brides Of Dracula but we also had the building blocks of filmic fright on television with gems from the thirties, forties and fifties like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Uninvited, I walked With A Zombie and Attack Of The Fifty Woman. Grown up hipster Ed “Big Daddy Roth” became the first guy to decorate T-shirts with freakish art for car clubs and then for model kits and the race to get every kid’s quarter was on in every ghoulish way imaginable. Sadly I don’t think as many of today’s younger afficianados have the same palate as those of us who were brought up on black and white and with camera men who would do all kinds of genres rather than just horror quickies.
The kids who grew up with Freddy have a different bar than those of my cohorts but thankfully not all teenagers are done in by watered down sequels and quick music video style editing. After all, I grew up watching tons of trash like The Creeping Terror and I still seek to find gourmet bits of gore and atmosphere. If you need a good rule of thumb for viewing this year stick to Turner Classic Movies .They are showing a cemetery load of good or iconic horrors this year and Vincent Price is the honored star of the month. So with no time to waste while I have a few days off from tweaking my Rock and Roll horror show called Haunted Garage with a great new cast I would like to flay out a few bloody movie morsels that sometimes get overlooked. Pleasant screams.
13. The Bat and The Bat Whispers. Both directed by Roland west based on a hit stage play and visually in part from the French serial Les Vampires. The film clearly set the blueprint for the American super Villain and the anti heroes of the 60’s. Bob Kane freely admits that The Bat Whispers was shot in three different formats including the first and only widescreen format of 65mm. Wonderful shadowed sets and expertly done miniatures catapult this apex of the “Old Dark House” type thriller high above most of the genre which died out from lack of creativity in the early fifties. Available on YouTube and on TCM.
12.The Hidden Hand. Unless Turner Classic Movie is showing this soon, it can be only seen via torrents or on the Warner Archives made on demand discs called Warner Brothers Horror/Mystery Double Features. The Hidden Hand stars a very young Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens and character actor Milton Parsons who would have been a shoe-in for the role of Lurch in the Addams Family had it come out in the forties. Think of this as a poor cousin to Arsenic And Old Lace where the farce is expertly and efficiently mixed in with the chills like a card sharp playing poker with the night watchman of a cemetery. A half cracked old lady springs her insane brother out of the asylum so he can help her dispatch of the ones unworthy of her inheritance. A good way to kill a little over an hour.
11. The Face At The Window. In the thirties and forties there was one actor who was the fleshy embodiment of the cartoon character Snidely Whiplash and that Was Todd Slaughter. Todd was kind of like a 2nd rate Vincent Price on steroids, but he is fun to watch as he breaks the fourth wall to gleefully twirl his moustace and address the audience with the intent of ravishing the virtuous maid and then murdering her for her inheritance. Todd plays a phony aristocrat who is in reality and bank robber and killer known as “the wolf”. Most of Slaughter’s vehicles are broad but sinister melodrama from the music hall days but this one is closer to a true horror film because he uses he uses his deformed and hirsuit brother to dispatch his enemies when he’s not rattling in a cage. Available on Youtube and many other sources.
10. Never Take Sweets From A Stranger (U.S. title Never Take Candy From A Stranger) Hammer films made several very decent to good suspense thrillers in their reign as the bloody bards of the sixties but none were so arresting as this one. The simple but powerful story of a town that turns a blind eye to the patriarch of the community being a pedophile and its attempt to block exposure from a new principal whose daughter has been victimized could have been buried in nudges and innuendos, but considering its release date of 1960 this one goes straight for the jugular. Rather than being praised for its tight script and excellent acting from a mostly unknown cast, Hammer became embarrassed and buried the film decades after critics gave this one a swift kick in the nuts for even going near the tainted area. Most of the credit or backlash goes to an elderly character actor named Felix Aylmer who gives a chilling performance as the dangerous molester without uttering a single phrase. Available on TCM and on the DVD collection Hammer:Icons Of Suspense. Also for rent on hard disc from Netflix.
9. The Blood Rose. Once Europe started to feel easy about thumbing their noses at censorship from the church that had held them back for so long there became a giddy glut of trash both good and bad in everything from saucy comedies to spy films, but especially in the dark realms of horror where sex and trauma were naturally intertwined. I remember seeing the jaw dropping trailer for this movie in a well known Grindhouse in Hollywood called The World Theater. The trailer itself was “R” rated and I remember cringing because this was their next attraction and I was going to be broke that week. Back in 1970 if you didn’t catch a film on its initial release you could never count on ever catching it again especially a film whose trailer included a scalded face, several murders, scads of naked women and a couple of dwarves dressed like Fred and Barney Flintstone. Lensed in France by director Claude Mulot, The blood Rose is a mash-up of the legend of Elizabeth DeBathory and the classy horror flick Eyes Without a Face. The basic plot of an artist trying to care for his muse after her face has been torched by a jealous lover is pretty straightforward but the details of this hot and bothered fever dream is what the film is really about. Available from Mondo Macabro DVD.
8.The House That Screamed AKA La Residencia. Although the film is dripping with inch thick gooey atmosphere, The House That Screamed by Spanish Director Narcisso Ibanez Serrador (Who Can Kill A Child) may seem a bit leisurely but not uninteresting to today’s modern horror buffs, but in in 1969 this giallo about the nasty interiors of a school for wayward girls came like a shot to the kidneys with its hints of sadomasochism, necrophilia and incest. Lilli Palmer plays the stern head mistress whose girls keep getting bumped off by some perverse killer. That’s all I’ll say. The acting and photography as well as the direction is top notch for a film of this budget and rank. Available on Youtube, Amazon Streaming and on DVD as an Elvira Double Feature with Maneater Of Hydra, a blood-drinking plant movie.
7. Attack Of The Beast Creatures. This should probably be closer to number 13, but I only now remembered its arcane and dubious pleasures. There was a great TV movie in the 70’s where Karen Black is chased around by a Zuni warrior doll who comes to life with a single minded drive to do her in. Obviously the makers of this 1985 indie made in Connecticut drive-in circuit were also impressed by this and figured if one killer puppet is scary then a hundred should knock the crap out of you harder than a bran muffin and two cups of coffee. The biggest difference is that Trilogy Of Terror boasted the acting chops of Karen Black, the TV direction and production savvy of Dan (Dark Shadows) Curtis and a Teleplay by legend Richard Matheson based on his short story Prey. On the other hand, Attack Of The Beast Creatures was probably shot on two weekends for less then 50,000 dollars by people who had never made a film before and a cast that was probably the best they could get for free. Stephen King and horror critics have noted that in the quest for good horror movies one often develops a taste for bad ones since the latter far outweigh the former. The bonus is that this film is totally hilarious in its ineptitude and its gonzo philosophy to push the puppet element over the top. Available On YouTube.
6. Dellamorte Dellamore. If Louis Bunuel (Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeosie) had directed a zombie movie it would be most likely be similar to this. Rife with espressionism and beautiful images of sex and death Francesco Dellamorte is a hapless man with no future and no past who must live in the cemetery with his helper — a strangely afflicted and simple companion named Gnagi to dispatch the dead when they inexplicably turn into zombies seven days later. Dellamorte searches for love unsuccessfully until his desire for female validation turns into vengeance and the results couldn’t be more tongue in cheek or surreal. Available on YouTube, Netflix hard disc and DVD.
5. American Mary. The rape revenge motif has been a popular horror and exploitation staple since the seventies with films like I Spit On Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Jenn and Sylvia Soska who write, act and direct their films have a true love of grindhouse and edgy seat of your pants horror, but they are also a fresh explosion of double dynamite in a world usually populated by mediocre fan boys or slaves for a buck at Asylum pictures. Mary Therese Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) is a struggling med student who the harder she strives to raise herself above her element the more she is disdained by the male Doctors that she originally admired. After a humiliating date rape scenario, Mary retreats from school but is then drawn into the lucrative and visceral world of body modification which gives her some brilliant ideas. Mary is a flawed film in areas but its flesh eschewing feminism and freakish visuals make it a trip to the hospital worth taking. Available on DVD and Netflix streaming.
4. The Viy. Some films create their own environment so well it’s hard to pin down just what era they were made in. Hausu from Japan is one such film and the phantasmagorical telling of this Gogol story about an oft told folk tale is another. Made in 1967 on a very low budget The Viy is Russia’s first significant horror film and a dry witted one at that. An oafish novice priest who is stuck in the seminary by default goes on a pilgrimage with some of his fellows and after consuming a bit too much wine spends the night in an old barn. The Barn just happens to be the home of a voracious old hag who in no uncertain terms flies off with the young fool with the intent of making him her dog and perhaps a sex slave as well. In an effort to escape, the witch is accidentally killed and transforms into the beautiful daughter of a wealthy landlord. Local custom demands that the priest hold vigil over her body for three nights and say prayers so that no demon may snatch her soul. Since she is a demon in the first place the priest first tries to flee but eventually has to put up with three nights of shaky faith standing up against goblins that remind one of Bosch’s paintings of Hell. Using every special effect trick known before the age of CGI The Viy bombards us with every monster gag in the book but with a decidedly old world flair. The overall feel is that of the Guttenberg comic book. Available on DVD and YouTube.
3. Inside. The French have been churning out some grand and grisly horror films over the last ten years and Inside (Interieur) is somewhere in the top five of modern European terror tales as I see it. Like French cooking, this movie starts with careful preparation and then things get pungent until the lily is gilded in gore. A woman who lost her husband in a careless car accident is about to go to the hospital to induce labor and she is dreadfully sullen about it. While waiting for her friend to drive her over, a mysterious woman uses several deceitful ways to gain entry into her home. It doesn’t take long before the cards are thrown on the table and the intruder announces her intent to take the woman’s baby even if she has to yank it out of her. What ensues is a brutal and unexpected game of tug o’ war where the roles of cat and mouse switch hands every ten minutes or so. A real roller coaster ride and not for the squeamish. Available at Amazon and Netflix hard disc rental.
2.Dead Girl. Directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel take the basic elements of River’s Edge a bit of Lord Of The Flies a hint of Stand By Me and simmer the contents until it becomes a jet black examination of adolescent boys, morality and the female as a sex object in the most literal sense. A bunch of chums are investigating an abandoned asylum annd find a silent and quite naked woman chained and imprisoned there. Oh, yeah — she’s dead. She’s hot. She responds but she’s dead. This is a cerebral and disturbing chiller that doesn’t rely so much on plot but on how each character relates to the dead girl and how that affects their relation to each other expecially after some of the boys have non consential sex with the animated corpse. There are a few dark chuckles here and there but this is definately not a flick to show the kids and grandparents while examining your Halloween loot. Available on Netflix Disc and Amazon streaming video.
1.Gozu. Takashi Miike is a prolific director of great influence and many styles but is probably best known as the Asian master of WTF? cinema. A bulk of his best work is so steeped in strangeness and outlandish violence that it was a bit hard to decide which film had the most WTF? to point out. Gozu, or The Great Yakuza Horror Show starts out with a scene that begins as a bit of a puzzle and then culminates in an act that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Those who has seen the film know well what I’m talking about but let’s just say the folks at PETA would not approve. Minimi and Ozaki are Yakuza mob enforcers but Ozaki has been acting way out of whack so the boss orders Minimi to take him out of town for a ride. The word “brother” is bandied about alot so we are not really sure if the two men are brothers of the mob or brothers of blood as well. In any case, the two are very close and what becomes a difficult task for Minimi to fill becomes a hellish trip down the rabbitt hole when Minimi stops to relieve himself after the deed and finds that the corpse has disapeared. Gozu is alternately funny and disgusting and a ride that makes little sense but has tons of original scenery. Defecating ghosts, a dry cleaning shop of tattooed skins, electric anal sex, mother’s mik run amuck and a very bizarre gender bending birthing sequence makes Gozu something more than horror but what that is is anyone’s guess. Available on DVD and on hard disc from Netflix.