The Haunted Strangler(1958); Dir. Robert Day. Criterion Collection DVD(2007)

I cannot say that I had very high expectations for this movie but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story and film making despite a somewhat convoluted plot and some overeager acting. It would be easy to classify The Haunted Strangler as a B-movie horror picture and dismiss it as having a limited scope and all the trappings of its genre. However, that would be overlooking the wonderful performance that Boris Karloff gives as the social reformer/novelist James Rankin who sets out to prove the innocence of the man hanged for being The “Haymarket Strangler” twenty years ago. Karloff’s performance plays on the contrast between the polite and compassionate English gentleman and the murderous monster that literally paralyzes Rankin when he grasps the ominous surgeon’s scalpel which appears throughout the movie as a symbol of terror.

Boris Karloff makes the transition from gentleman to monster with the ease of an actor who is greatly skilled at tapping into the dark recesses of human nature while at the same time remaining sympathetic and vulnerable. What is impressive is that Karloff is able to convey this transition with virtually no makeup and you really feel like you are watching a monster emerge out of this character. There is a scene at the end of the film where Rankin is strangling his daugther Lily and he suddenly comes out of his trance like paralysis and realizes what he is doing. The pitiful look and anguish he conveys is very moving and captures the torment that Rankin feels as he is trapped between these two personas. The fact that no one wants to believe him until it is too late makes his torment all the more palpable and even early on in the film when Rankin is following the trail of the mysterious Dr. Tenent there are cues from Rankin that he might be onto something that could be a horrible truth.

Where the problems in the film seem to arise is from the unclear nature of the “Haymarket Strangler” and his origins. It is never clear whether the knife that keeps disappearing and reappearing in the film has some curse on it that makes the person holding it kill or if holding the knife triggers some psychotic response in the form of murderous impulses and paralysis. What the actual nature of the evil is never really gets defined and that makes it a little hard to keep up with and takes away from the impact of some of the scenes. There is one scene between James and his wife Barbara that reveals where James Rankin came from but this comes so late in the film that rather than moving the story along, it seems to confuse it and leaves the viewer even more unclear of what the “Haymarket Strangler” is supposed to be. It is never really clear if the murderer is supposed to be a split personality or a force of supernatural possession or some strange mixture of the two but it does feel like the film makers can’t decide which it is and this makes things a little muddled as the story plays out.

The way the violence plays out is also an interesting aspect of the film. While it is not overly graphic it is very unsettling the way the camera alternates between close-ups of the victim being strangled and the contorted face of the murderer. These scenes use the point of view shots very effectively to heighten the atmosphere of the killings. Some of the best scenes are those where Rankin lurks in the shadows watching his victim, as he does when he is at the dancehall. The dark presence and heavy breathing establish an unsettling apprehension of what is to come even when it is predictable. Some of the predictability comes from the fact that the story seems to take a lot of cues from the Jack The Ripper story.

Since it is a Criterion disc, there are some great features that are worth watching along with the movie. One is a series of taped interviews with cast and crew of the film talking about the experience of working on the movie and about working with Boris Karloff. It is very interesting to hear about Karloff and how kind of a man he was. Another feature of interest are original radio spots for The Haunted Strangler along with the double billing of the film with Fiend Without A Face. A few of the radio spots feature Boris Karloff and it is really interesting to listen to since they don’t do that type of promotion anymore. From a historical point of view, the features are really very interesting. Being an early example of a slasher film makes this movie very interesting but it also avoids being just a curiosity, mostly due to Boris Karloff’s performance.  

Well, this is not related to the movie at all but here is a link to Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Something fun for halloween!

Up Next The October Horror Movie gets a little funky with William Marshall and Pam Grier in 1973’s Scream, Blacula, Scream!



The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires(1974); Dir. Cheh Chang & Roy Ward Baker. Anchor Bay DVD(1999)

Not released in the United States until 1979 under the title The 7 brothers Meet Dracula, this film is a unique coming together of the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios and England’s Hammer Studios.  These two genre studios represent the best of martial arts and horror films respectively and the collaborative effort they have produced, while not being a great film, is an exciting and action packed movie that plays to both genres very effectively.

Again assuming his iconic role as Dr. Van Helsing, Peter Cushing encounters his arch-nemesis Count Dracula(played with a little too much make-up by John Forbes-Robertson) in the Chinese village of Peng Kwei after Dracula took the form of a high priest who came to his castle in Transylvania to ask for his help. Of course, Count Dracula will not have any of that, and takes the form of the high priest in order to control the 7 Golden Vampires who have been terrorizing the town for many years.

The beginning of the film sets up a very nice prelude to the rest of the story, showcasing the standard but always atmospheric Hammer studio set of the cobwebbed Transylvanian castle as Dracula rises from his crypt and goes to the village of Peng Kwei. This provides a nice contrast for the rest of the film as we are introduced to Van Helsing giving a lecture to history professors at a university in China. Van Helsing relates the story of an unknown village where there is a legend of 7 vampires who arise every 7th moon and attack the villagers. Van Helsing has come to China to do research on vampires but he meets with resistance and disbelief and decides to give up when he is visited by a man from the village who confirms the legend and asks for Van Helsing’s help in vanquishing the 7 golden vampires. 

Here the martial arts elements of the story come into play and dominate the majority of the films’ action sequences leading up to an impressive final battle that is wonderfully choreographed.  Hsi Ching, his six brothers, and sister, all skilled with different weapons, enlist Van Helsing’s help and go with him, his son Leyland, and a Scandanavian heiress who is financing the trip, on a journey to the village. Along the way they battle armies of the undead, a mercenary army, and their own fear as they draw closer to the village and the source of the terror.

The fighting sequences are very stylized, as you would expect a Shaw Bros. production to be, and the characters tend to take a back seat to the action although there are parallel romance stories that are developed in a very standard, side plot fashion. It is nice to see Peter Cushing resuming his role as Dr. Van Helsing. He does not do anything new with this role but because he seems so comfortable in the role of Van Helsing, it also seems to come very naturally for him and he shows his ease with the character even though the direction of the film is not the standard one usually taken for vampire films. Also of note in this film is the makeup done by Wu Hsu Ching who has had a long and distinguished career as a makeup artist for many Shaw Brothers productions and a film that Quentin Tarantino released through his Rolling Thunder Pictures Mighty Peking Man.  The masks of the 7 Golden Vampires and the undead demons are wonderfully decrepit and the scenes of them dissolving and turning to ash are great stop motion effects which enchances the feel of the movie.

Up next for The October Horror Movie Series Boris Karloff is a novelist possessed by the spirit of a murderer in The Haunted Strangler 

Charles Jacob

Black Sunday(U.S. Title) or The Mask of Satan(1960); Dir. Mario Bava. Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

There are movies that elicit such a strong emotional response that trying to relate to them on any other level proves to be very difficult. Sometimes it is good to gain some distance from a film before allowing an opinion to really take shape and crystallize. But often there are movies which cause an immediate response  and I think that this was the case when I was watching Black Sunday. I found myself haunted by the imagery and poetic dreaminess of Mario Bava’s cinematography and storytelling. The images of the forest and old ruins where Princess Asa and the Prince were put to death and buried after being found guilty of witchcraft and serving the devil come to life in the rich black and white tones which emphasize shadow and fog.

In the later parts of the film the Prince, awakened from the dead to bring vengeance on the family that murdered him and as he looms out of the darkness and wanders through the eerie castle where the present day Vajda family lives oppressed by the curse that had been placed on them two centuries before, the haunting presence of the Princess Asa is almost subconsciously drifting through the film. We are given brief shots of her lying in her coffin which was disturbed by Dr. Andre Gorobec and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan who at first do not pay attention to the superstitions of this Eastern European town they are passing through on their way to Moscow. Even though it is not till the end of the film that she becomes a dominant aspect of the story, Mario Bava conveys her hold over the characters through beautifully constructed atmospheric details.

The haunting imagery of the movie plays wonderfully with the performances of Barbara Steele as both the Princess Asa and the girl Katia Vajda who happens to look just like Asa, Prince Vajda who is tortured by his family’s past, and Prince Constantine who finds himself dragged down by the curse which plagues his family. They are as dark and mysterious as the scenery that surrounds them and Mario Bava’s camerwork really brings out the turmoil that stalks them and shows how Dr. Gorobec and Dr. Kruvajan are gradually drawn into horror that has a hold over these people. The entire story plays out as poetically as a Shakespearean tragedy as it shows the ruin of these characters and their inability to prevent this oncoming doom. Of course, Black Sunday ends more like a Shakespearean comedy with an element of sadness and loss, but this comes more as a relief after such an oppressively dark film rather than feeling forced or contrived.

While every shot pays special attention to the broad spectrum of shadow that black and white film making offers, it also emphasizes the supernatural elements of the story which Mario Bava shows through violent storms, wind, and primal elements which denote impending evil. However, it is not a story about good vs. evil in the traditional sense. Two highly educated and scientific doctors who are not able to understand supernatural phenomenon and dismiss everything as superstition are inept at confronting evil when they come face to face with it. In fact Dr. Kruvajan is seduced by it and becomes a servant to it. Other characters in the story, such as the Vajda family, are not good or bad, they simply exist as people who face retribution. There are many aspects of this film that are played as a simple revenge story but it is interesting and very effective how Mario Bava turns the people who are seeking revenge into the villains of the story and brings to the forefront many of the themes that work on a much deeper level in the film.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series fights a different kind of vampire in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers co-production of Peter Cushing in The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires.

Charles Jacob;

The Stuff(1985); Dir. Larry Cohen; Starz/Anchor Bay DVD (2000)

While The Stuff  is a gleeful skewering of American consumerism and unscrupulous corporations, it also attempts to be a horror film and this is where the movie does not seem quite as ambitious or effective as it should be.  Larry Cohen the director, writer, and producer of this movie is certainly very capable of both relevant social commentary and horror, as he demonstrated with Bone(1972) and It’s Alive!(1974) but in The Stuff  the two just do not come together.  This is not to say that the plot of the movie lacks cohesion but it does get a little convoluted and it just suggests too many things that the movie does not take the time to develop.

The Stuff, which has the appearance of oozing Marshmallow Fluff, is quickly introduced in the beginning of the movie bubbling out of the ground as an unsuspecting miner discovers it, tastes it, and immediately decides that it tastes good enough to keep eating. That is the last we hear of him and the next thing we know there are full blown ad campaigns complete with catchy jingles and celebrities such as Abe Vigoda and Brooke Adams selling The Stuff as a nicely packaged snack to a public that just cannot get enough.

Here the plot branches off in several different directions(so bear with me) and involve an ex-FBI agent specializing in industrial espionage played quite well by Michael Moriarty(who worked a few years earlier with Larry Cohen on Q:The Winged Serpent), an unhinged self appointed Colonel who spouts off anti-communist rhetoric and worries about fluoride in the water in the fashion of Dr. Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, played by Paul Sorvino, who is enlisted by the the ex-FBI agent ‘Mo’ Rutherford to help destroy The Stuff after he discovers what it really is and have seen what it does to people after they have been eating it. Then there is Jason who we meet first in the film and is suspicious of The Stuff from the very beginning. He is resistant to eating the Stuff while his family is literally consumed by it and at one point goes on a rampage through the grocery store which almost feels like a slapstick moment as the adults bumble around trying to catch him.

 Then there is ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs who was a cookie mogul until The Stuff came along and ruined his business, and Nicole who directed and worked full time on the ad campaign for The Stuff. There are many more characters, some that are significent to the plot and some that are not, but trying to keep up with them is a little distracting as ‘Mo’ Rutherford crosses and gets double crossed by the corporation that hired him to investigate The Stuff, The FDA, and the corporation marketing and selling The Stuff. 

Perhaps it is the cynical times in which we live and the series of corporate scandals we have been witness to in the last few years, but greedy, unscrupulous corporations and crooked government agencies do not seem as shocking as they should. In fact, it is what we expect. They seem like an easy target and without any real biting satire to back it up, the comedic aspects of the movie go flat after being played up through most of the movie. Then there is the horror elements of the film which feel underdeveloped compared to the other aspects of the film. There are several scenes where we see people, called ‘Stuffies’ after they have eaten so much of The Stuff that it takes them over, moving and acting like zombies as they come after ‘Mo’ and Jason. Towns are emptied out and people do nothing but consume The Stuff which is really consuming them.  The horror aspects of the movie are not so much underplayed as they are fleeting and I found myself wishing that the comedy was a little less stated and the fears the film was only flirting with were more deeply explored. This would have been more satisfying but it also would have been an entirely different film.

Up Next for the October Horror Movie Series is Italian director Mario Bava’s first feature film, Black Sunday, starring the illustrious Barbara Steele.

Charles Jacob;

The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967); Dir. Roman Polanski; Warner Home Video(2004)

A movie with the subtitle Pardon me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck would suggest to the viewer that they are about to watch something that is in the same vein(I just couldn’t resist) as Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It or the more accomplished Young Frankenstein. The trailer for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers sets up the film as a parody of vampire movies by adding slapstick sound effects and there is a short special feature included on the disc entitled Vampires 101 which plays as a farce of how to protect oneself from and kill vampires in the form of a lecture given by a very serious and scholarly professor in a creepy castle. Having watched both of these before the actual film, I was almost expecting a film that was absurd, as well as very blatant and intentional about its efforts to parody classic vampire films.

Parody and satire, over the last several years, have gotten a very bad rap because of such movies as Disaster Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and the countless drone of films that attempt to lampoon everything in sight that could be classified as “pop culture sacred cows.” These movies show very little production value and operate on the lowest levels of humor by finding actors and actresses that can look or sound like the person they are parodying enough to get a few cheap laughs. I bring these movies up not to set them up as straw men in an easy argument for the merits of Polanski’s film but rather to point out that parody is a very delicate thing often taken for cheap entertainment.

What stands out immediately in The Fearless Vampire Killers is the sets and landscape of the film. The castle where a good deal of the action in the film takes place feels Medieval and haunted. The cobwebs, creaky doors, and other aspects that are so often used as cliches and convenient set pieces really feel like they belong there and add an ominous quality to the atmosphere as Prof. Abronsius and Alfred travel through the castle in search of answers.  The inn where Abronsius and Alfred first arrive at, as well as its inhabitants, seem strange and foreboding in their daily routines. You know from the start that things are not quite right when you see the rooms lined with garlic and crucifixes hanging on every wall. But everyone goes about their business and the innkeeper, Shagal, played with great attention to eccentricity and a great sense of comedic timing by Alfie Bass, is unwilling to disclose what it is all about. The inn and the castle are the only interior sets in the film and the rest relies on the beautiful snowy exteriors filmed by the great Douglas Slocombe(cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies among many others).

This attention to detail and moody atmosphere perfectly compliments the performances given by the actors throughout the film. The characters are played with a seriousness that makes the satire work even more effectively, even when they are unrestrained and bumbling as in the case of Polanski’s Alfred or unabashadly sinister as in the case of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. There is the homoerotic son of Count von Krolock, played by lain Quarrier and the wonderful hunchback servant to Count von Krolock, Terry Downes who chases after Prof. Abronsius and Alfred in a coffin used as a sled and refuses to let the undead Shagal sleep in the coffin room with his masters, pushing the coffin outside to Shagal’s neurotic complaints. The comic turns these actors give in the film range from the genuinely creepy to the inept attempts of Abronsius and Alfred to stop the vampires once they have discovered them. The darker undertones of the film seem to play out through these characters as they try to reckon with Count von Krolock and his undead forces while unwittingly doing more harm then good in the end.

There are many times when it is refreshing not to know what to expect from a movie, and this is certainly one of those times. What is unexpected about this film does not come from any scary surprises or plot twists that are supposed to shock us but through the landscape that Polanski creates and the attention to detail that he consistently uses throughout the film. He directs The Fearless Vampire Killers the same way that he would have with any of his more serious films and this gives the movie a charm that draws you in and engages you all the way through. Polanski demonstrates a sense of freedom in directing with a deft touch that emphasizes the satirical aspects of the movie while exploring the possibilities of the story material and this makes it more than just an odd curiosity in Roman Polanski’s long film career.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series gets a tasty but deadly treat with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.

Charles Jacob, please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or general thoughts that you would like to share.

Curse Of the Cat People(1944, RKO); Dir. Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise. Warner Brothers Home Video, 2005.

There is so much that one can talk about when looking at the work of Val Lewton. A troubled man who was rarely given the credit for his artistic accomplishments, either from himself or the people he worked for, Lewton practically went unnoticed as he redefined what horror movies could accomplish through the basic elements of light, shadow, and a tense, moody atmosphere. The fears that Lewton explores in his movies tap into the most basic human psychology(firmly rooted in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) and reveals characters that are troubled and vulnerable. They find themselves in a world where their fears become manifested in the shadows and terror is an unseen entity that other people fail to understand. In this sense, the films of Val Lewton are as much tragedy as they are horror. For those interested in learning more about Val Lewton and his films, there is a great documentary narrated and produced by Martin Scorcese called Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows.

When RKO studios gave Val Lewton the title Curse of the Cat People to make a movie with, they had originally intended Lewton to make a follow up movie to 1942’s big hit Cat People which had been Lewton’s first picture as a producer. Lewton wanted to make an original movie and name the picture Amy and her Friend.  The studio would not permit it and insisted that Lewton at least acknowledge the previous film, which  we see in the obligatory shot of the cat in the tree in the opening sequence of Curse of the Cat People, the return of Simone Simon’s character Irena, as the ghost who befriends Ann Carter’s character Amy Reed, Elizabeth Russell who appeared briefly in Cat People as the women who speaks to Irena at her wedding reception returns as Barbara Farren, as well as Kent Smith and Jane Randolph reprising their roles as Oliver Reed and Alice Reed. Besides a few references to Irena early on in the film, and a painting of hers that found its way into the Reed’s living room, that is where the similarities between the two film stop and Curse of the Cat People takes on a life of its own as a unique story of a little girl who is lonely, isolated, and misunderstood by adults, especially her father.

These two films are also separated by stylistic differences, some of which comes from having two different directors. Jaques Tourneur(who went on to direct the influential noir Out of The Past and several other films for Val Lewton) directed Cat People and first time director Robert Wise worked on Curse of the Cat People after Gunther Fritsch was unable to complete the film on time. Thematically, Curse of the Cat People is also separated from Cat People by exploring the way a child sees the world as the central idea of the movie. Taking on a child’s voice and using that as the center of a story is a very difficult thing to do well but Curse of the Cat People seems to comfortably adopt that voice and there are several very nice touches to the movie which add to the sense that you are seeing this from the child’s perspective.

Amy does not understand why the other children will not play with her and we get the sense early in the film that she feels like an outcast. She is often lost in a fantasy world where the tree in the backyard is a magic mailbox in which she puts the invitations to her birthday party and is later surprised that no one got them, where after hearing the story of the headless horseman and sleepy hollow(which is where the film is supposed to be set) imagines that she hears the horse riding towards her which in a masterful touch turns out to be a car going over an old bridge, and is drawn to an old house where a woman(played by Julia Dean) lives a solitary life as a former actress who has lost her mind and is cared for by her daughter Barbara, who she torments by refusing to acknowledge that she is her daughter. The isolation of these two women from each other and the world outside of the rundown house, as well as the psychology of their relationship is something that Amy cannot understand and unintentionally finds herself stuck in the middle of.

Amy’s relationship to Irena is puzzling and concerning to Alice and Oliver and with the hints of the events of the previous film that you get within the story, you are almost waiting for the film to veer into repeating Irena’s fate through Amy or some variation that capitalizes on the success of the first film. But that is not the case and Val Lewton and the directors manage to cleverly sneak in a film that looks and feels very little like Cat People. This is no small feat considering how much control RKO had over the picture and how small of a budget they gave Val Lewton to work with. Being able to create a film of such complexity and deep psychological understanding seems even more impressive when you realize how ahead of his time Lewton really was.

Up next director Roman Polanski gives the October Horror Movie Series something to really sink its teeth into with 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Be sure to join us for some good funny bone tickling!

Tombs of the Blind Dead(1971)-Dir. Amando de Ossorio; Blue Underground DVD(2006)

Whether or not you can call this film, and the three subsequent titles that followed, a masterpiece of horror depends upon how comfortable you are with applying such a loose and easily discarded label. The American Film Institute and other compilers of “The Top(insert your genre of the day here) list often talk about “masterpieces” as if going down a checklist and reiterating all the qualifications a movie must meet in order to be considered as such was a rigorous way to test a film’s merit. Simply, we love to canonize and categorize and place things(especially books, movies, and music) in a hierarchical order. I find, however, that a lot of these qualifications can be liberally applied to just about any movie and you will(intentionally or not) end up with the same conclusion. That is the beauty of film. One man’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is anothers’ Citizen Kane. They become almost interchangeable in some cases.

So that brings us to Tombs of the Blind Dead  which is neither Plan 9 or Citizen Kane but an interesting zombie film that involves Knight Templar from the Far East, satanic rituals, virgin sacrifice, the ruins of an old church and monastery where the templars were buried in disgrace, and modern day Portugal where several Spaniards set off for a nice summer holiday. If George Romero used the zombie film as a commentary on American consumerism, racism, greed, and the ability of the military and authority to create rather than solve problems, European imitators seized the opportunity to strew their films with guts, gross out effects, and liberal doses of nihilistic carnage. But this is not Amando de Ossorio’s approach at all. In fact, he seems so intent upon the gothic mood and creating an atmosphere of dread through the use of music, shots of the empty church ruins, and a growing awareness of what the Blind Dead actually are, that grossing out his audience or shocking them with drawn out scenes of chomping zombies is actually pretty far from his mind. In this sense, he does create quite an original film and Amando de Ossorio knows how to play to his own strength. The best scenes in the film, indeed, are when the knights come out of their tombs and are riding their undead horses, chasing down their victim to fulfill the taste for blood they have been cursed with. Here in these scenes all the elements of the film come together and Amando de Ossorio is able to focus on the undead knights with little regard for anything else.

This begs the question, who are these people that are being terrorized by these bloody knights? And that is a question that the film cannot offer a satisfactory answer to. In fact the film almost completely stops working when it is not directly dealing with the knights. Characters feel misplaced, seem rushed in and out of emotional scenes, or even go places that you just wouldn’t think they would go even out of desperation. One gets the sense that the characters are always conveniently placed where they need to be in order to be pushed closer to their own death at the hands of the knights or someone the knights already chomped on, as is the case for a few unlucky people in the movie. That is one of the more conventional zombie movie cliches that just doesn’t seem to fit in this story. What is unfortunate about this film is that some of the things that make it unique are also what prove detrimental to the film’s overall coherence. The music alternates between gothic chants and ambient noises that play on Amando de Ossorio’s tone for the film but this is sometimes interrupted by what feels like a misplaced Nino Rota score which is pleasant to listen to but leaves you a little puzzled at times.

It is not until the end of the movie that you see what Amando de Ossorio’s vision for the film should have been and one can only hope as it is joltingly brought to a close that he builds on that momentum for the next movies of the series.

Up Next for the October Horror Movie Series is famed producer Val Lewton’s unintentionally titled follow-up film to 1942’s Cat People. The multi-facteted Robert Wise directs Simone Simon in 1944’s  The Curse of the Cat People.

Poltergeist(1982)-Dir. Tobe Hooper; Warner Brothers 25th Anniversary Edition DVD(2007)

Poltergeistis a perfect blend of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. It manages to be both a special effects bonanza that retains a certain amount of nostalgia while at the same time expressing Tobe Hooper’s horror sensibility. I am assuming that it is Hooper’s sensibilities since we have never really seen Spielberg work in that medium again but this is a film in which it is hard to tell where Spielberg the producer stopped and Hooper the director took over. It certainly feels like a Spielberg movie, for the most part, but then again, isn’t a good collaboration about creating a seamless project that doesn’t reveal who worked on what?

 It is also one of the rare horror movies that has achieved blockbuster status. It is a movie that you almost feel obligated to see because it has worked its way so deeply into America’s popular culture psyche. So much so that Heather O’ Rourke’s character Carol Anne sitting in front of the television saying “they’re here” along with Craig T. Nelson have been adopted for the switch to digital television ad campaign.  Particular scenes, the characters, and lines of dialogue from the movie are as iconic as many of the other films Spielberg has worked on.

The film is also unique because of the fact that it is a special effects ghost story done in a way, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, that hadn’t been seen before. Horror movies usually are not the films to get the budgets and that is usually a blessing in disguise. But in this case there is no way the story that Spielberg wanted to tell could have been brought to the screen without them; being able to combine a few scenes of visceral scares with the impressive effects of a house disappearing into a sinkhole, a closet that open up and sucks everything into it, and beams of light moving through a house are all pretty impressive. What is impressive too is that we don’t lose track of the characters. They manage to remain at the forefront through the whole movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play perfectly in Spielberg’s suburban fantasy( a theme he has mined on several occasions-most notably in the almost simultaneous 1982 release of E.T.) as the relatively easy going typical suburban parents and their typical suburban kids  whose lives are disrupted when their house becomes the center of not so typical spectral activity. 

Throughout the whole movie, the creepy and alarming things that go on in the house, even Carol Anne’s disappearance, are handled in the same matter of fact way that Steve Freeling argues with his neighbor over the t.v. remote signals crossing during the football game or the children sitting around the table at breakfast. The only indication of something being wrong at first is the way that Craig T. Nelson’s character looks after JoBeth Williams’ character excitedly shows him what the chairs can do in the kitchen. At this point in the movie we are left wondering if Steve Freeling is the only sensible person in the house or just an adult who works too much and has no connection to the childhood fantasy world.  I don’t think that question is every properly answered but it does become clear as events take a supernatural turn for the worst that there are no adults equipped to deal with the evil that is wrecking so much havoc. That is really no comfort for any child being terrorized by a dark force but the film suggests in several not so subtle ways that adults have as much control over events as children do in some cases, and sometimes even less than we like to think.

Whatever your opinion of Stephen Spielberg and his films might be, whether you see him as just an example of a bloated hollywood system that churns out special effects movies, or as someone who just has a natural gift and the “magic touch” when it comes to creating images and movies that resonate with popular culture, Poltergeist seems to exemplify a little of both sides of the argument.  That being said, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, for no other reason than to be able to be a little more literate in film and culture.  Besides, how often do you get to see ghosts and giant monsters rampaging around the house?

Up Next the October Horror Movie Series movies from haunted houses to haunted ruins as we pay a visit to the Tombs of The Blind Dead(La Noche Del Terror Ciego); the first film in Amando De Ossorio’s 1970’s blind dead series.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to my good friend Jennifer Sutphin who has joined me here on the movie series staff. She will be helping design the page, contributing movie titles, and many other things.

Phantasm IV:Oblivion(1998); Dir. Don Coscarelli. Anchor Bay DVD(2008)

Sadly, the film series with the tongue in cheek tagline “The Sequel With Balls” seems to have lost a few along the way to this fourth installment which attempts to explain the origins of the dreaded Tall Man and the undead horror he unleashed on mankind. Origin stories are such a tricky business, especially when they come years after the original film. While this film works in continuity and following the characters who have been played by the same actors across the series(except for Michael in Phantasm II), the emotional connection that the viewer should have with them just does not exist. It is often difficult in horror films to convince the audience to care about the characters because they are usually convenient plot devices to kill off. This is not the approach that Phantasm IV attempts to take but it falls short in clearly stating what the characters should be doing besides wandering around and fighting for their lives.  The fact that Michael’s brother Jody was converted to The Tall Man’s service in Phantasm III and returns as a force of good or evil trying to either lead Michael down the wrong path or help him is ultimately lost as the film progresses because of the ambiguity of the relationship they have with each other.

Reggie Bannister again reprises his role as the freewheelin’ ice cream man who has become a soldier in the war against the Tall Man’s minions and is in hot pursuit of Michael as he goes to fulfill his destiny with the Tall Man, who again is played wonderfully by Angus Scrimm. Throughout much of the movie, the action centers around Reggie(who is definitely the most fun character to watch in the movie) more than it does for Michael and in some ways they feel like two story lines that never really intersect except the scenes that involve Jody. Two of the best scenes in the movie involves Reggie’s character and an evil state trooper fighting it out on the highway but at this point the movie has drifted away from creepy, atmospheric horror, to something that resembles mad max meets night of the living dead. Then there is the scene with the woman he saves on the highway and tries to get lucky with only to find out she has killer orbs for breasts and is trying to do him in. The film meanders like this for many scenes, incorporating flash backs from scenes that must have been cut from the original film(which is actually a refreshing use of stock footage rather than recreating the scenes in fuzzy black and white recollection style) and despite the revelation of where the Tall Man actually comes from there seems to be no real resolution to the chain of events set off in the first movie.

I have to say that after watching Phantasm I would not have foreseen the story taking such a sharp turn into apocalyptic territory. Maybe it is just me, but this seems a little outside of the scope that the story is capable of operating in. The blend of science fiction and horror still works in this film where it becomes an inter-dimensional saga. However, this time travelling and collision of past and present seem to work contrary to the atmosphere of the film which is supposed to be a world in which no one is left. Is the Tall Man supposed to be like a plague that sweeps over the land? Why does he pursue Michael so intently?

As I stated in my review of  Phantasm, this is the type of movie where the first film was satisfying because very little was explained and the horror was much more palpable. While the acting and production value has certainly not decreased with the passage of time, the more that has been explained the less makes sense as you are watching this series. In the end, I am not sure what to make of this film except to say that it is good fun as long as you don’t try to think about the philosophical issues it attempts to raise or the hints of apocalyptic good vs. evil it tries to mix into the story line. But in the end, isn’t having fun with a movie like this what it’s all about?

Up next the October Horror Movie Series might be located on top of an old indian burial ground in the Stephen Spielberg produced and Tobe Hooper directed classic Poltergeist.

I am a few days behind in posting the first two films of my October horror movie series but better late than never, so lets get started. Before I do though let me introduce this column to all of you and thank you for taking the time to stop by and read my humble little movie review journal. Each month I will be taking a look at film currently on dvd from a wide variety of genres, directors, actors, actresses, and pretty much every possible way you can think to group movies together. I will be looking at old and new releases and offering up my thoughts and opinions for your reading pleasure. My hope is that if you are familiar with the title, you will have a new way of looking at the film, or if it is new to you, you might go and watch it. If anyone ever has any titles of interest they would like to share or just opinions about the films reviewed, please feel free to leave comments. All right Here we go….

Phantasm(1979)-Dir. Don Coscalleri ; Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

So here is a film that is very minimal on gore(except for a scene involving a fountain of very 70’s blood effects) and that relies heavily on creepy atmosphere and moody music to set the tone for the bizarre story that plays out over the four films of the series. Last year Anchor Bay released this dvd along with Phantasm III Lord Of The Dead and this year they released Phantasm IV:Oblivion but I have not found anything on Phantasm II which, for better or worse, is not available on dvd yet. It would be great to see them put together a really nice box set of all 4 films as they have done an excellent job cleaning up the prints and putting some nice features together for the films.

Combining science fiction and horror elements, Phantasm tells the story of a young boy who literally stumbles into the horror that is The Tall Man, played with the quiet restraint of a real terrifying presence by Angus Scrimm, who reprised the role 3 more times. The Tall Man steals dead bodies and murders people and brings them back as undead slaves who strangely resemble the jawas from Star Wars. After being chased and terrorized  by nightmares, a severed finger that morphs into a demonic fly, and followed by the notorious killer ball(which along with Angus Scrimm growling “Boy” is probably the most iconic aspect of the film), a young Mike(A. Michael Baldwin), older brother Jody(Bill Thornbury), and ice-cream truck driving best friend Reggie(Reggie Bannister)come face to face with what really goes on at Morning Side cemetery 

Low budget horror never looked as good as it did in the 1970’s which along with the 1930’s and 40’s, saw the greatest strides(I am convinced) in the development of the genre. The 1980’s just took the foundation  70’s films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween had built and splattered blood all over it. Even in this context though, Phantasm  is an anomaly of 1970’s horror. Even The Exorcist or its regretable sequel did not have some of the bizarre qualities that this movie contains. THe film manages to never take itself quite so seriously while still maintaining a creepy atmosphere and that is very impressive. Combining the science fictional element of a other-worldly dimensional hell that is being populated by the dead from our world and the classic horror element of the lone figure who brings death and destruction and cannot be stopped(at least not until after several sequels) is also a nice touch. Good horror films always seem to know how to effectively use minimalist sets most effectively to create claustrophobia and fear and Phantasm makes exceptional use of the cemetery, mortuary, and elements of the town in reoccurring images that set a very deliberate mood. The whole idea of dreams and being pursued continually set up the idea that this is an inescapable horror. Of course, it is the perfect set-up for several sequels because it leaves so many elements of the plot a mystery but the original chill from that you get from this movie is satisfying enough and I was so absorbed in the atmosphere and strange vision of the film that I was not too concerned with being given an explanation of the events I just watched unfold. In fact, Phantasm works best without any further explanation because it is exactly that which makes this a chilling experience. “Less is more” almost holds true for horror films and this is why many of these films from the 1970’s are so great.

Up Next is the last film(for now) in the Phantasm  series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion  which I will be posting later this afternoon. Posts for this column will come out regularly every week. I will also include movie reviews and halloween related news and events so stay tuned……..