I love October. The weather, the leaves changing color, the candy, the Halloween decorations…
…and the movies. Goddamn, you get to be a horror fan without anyone looking at you like you’re some bugged out dude sitting by the playground. For one month, fright fans are granted carte blanche because it’s “in the spirit of the season” (unless you’re watching the GUINEA PIG films, in which case you’re still just a “weirdo”).
In short, October is badass.
When I kept a personal blog, I used to watch a horror movie each day in October and then write about them at length, just like everyone else who isn’t the Osiris of this Horror Shit, Brian Collins of HMAD. Before that, I’d usually just jot down a list of the films I watched and on what day (fuck your judgement, I like lists). Now I bring this tradition to Very Aware, only I’ve put a bit of a spin on it.
Thirty double features in October — that’s what I’m going to bring you. The dual bills of horror, cult, sci-fi or exploitation that I’m using to ring in my favorite month. Most of these pieces will be quick (a meaty paragraph or so) while others will be full-blown reviews. It all depends on how much I love (or hate) the films.
All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year: the Exhumed Films 24-Hour Horrorthon (October 27th and 28th); an entire day where, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, 35 or 16mm prints of great (or horrifyingly awful…depending on the group’s mood) genre films from the 60s, 70s and 80s are projected nonstop with trailers, shorts and other oddities in between. It’s all courtesy of the fine folks in Exhumed Films (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi), who have been putting on unbelievable double features for the past fifteen years, and the 24-Hour Thon for five.
Features twenty-three and twenty-four find DEMONS coming for us not once, but twice, and a pair of TV movies from the 70s are a reminder of just how shitty the Lifetime Movie Network really is…
Feature #23 – 10/23/12 – The DEMONS Duology (DEMONS  & DEMONS 2 )
Dario Argento’s work as a producer almost outshines his output as a director. The Italian master of the giallo and supernatural shocker may have churned out such masterpieces as DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA while behind the camera, but its wasn’t until he helped enable other filmmakers achieve their visions that his genius really started to shine. Beginning with George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, Argento brought his eye-popping Technicolor touch to help enhance another’s voice, and would continue on this journey of assistance with another young horror maven from quite the lineage, Lamberto Bava. But where Bava’s father, Mario, reveled in classical, formalist, filmmaking, Lamberto brought a bit of a punk rock/heavy metal edge to his directorial debut, DEMONS.
Written as well as produced by Argento, you would think that the teaming of the then rock star caliber filmmaker and the son of an Italian horror legend would yield the ULTIMATE ITALIAN HORROR MOVIE, but really DEMONS is nothing more than a wholly entertaining stylistic exercise. In many ways, it feels weird to me that Argento wrote this and then let someone else direct it, as there isn’t a whole lot of substance to the script at all. A young girl riding the subway is invited by a metal masked fiend (played by yet another horror maverick, Michele Soavi, director of STAGEFRIGHT and CEMETARY MAN) to an unknown movie premiere at the lavish theater, The Metropol. As the movie-within-a-movie begins, we see that the plot begins to mirror the events happening within the outlandishly gaudy megaplex and, before we know it, faces begin to bubble and spew ooze as hookers are transformed into flesh chomping demons and The Metropol becomes a fortress wherein the movie-goers are fighting for their own survival.
What DEMONS does really well is escalate to heights of demented goofiness that is simultaneously head-slapping yet wholly entertaining. Not for one second will you be bored during the film’s 88 minutes of run-time, as faces are melted, throats are torn, and even a helicopter falls through the theater’s ceiling by the end. Argento and Bava swing for the fences and, for the most part, DEMONS succeeds in spades. Yes, there are the requisite Italian film-making pitfalls you have to endure (including some of the most audaciously bad dubbing I’ve ever heard in service of making the black, pimp stereotype, Tony, sound tough), but the gore effects and absolutely insane, apocalyptic ending make it all worth it, as DEMONS becomes one of the emptiest yet satisfying bits of cinematic calories you could ever ingest.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the car full of teenage punks that cruise about the film in not one, but both DEMONS movies (they’re not the same kids in DEMONS 2, but they might as well be), snorting coke from a Coke can through a straw and blasting Billy Idol. They give the film a sharp, “punk rock” feel that helps solidify its aesthetic, which is good since they’re not given much more to do besides show up near the end of the first and help provide our survivors a means of escape from the quickly disintegrating Metropol (the same can’t be said of the kids in the second DEMONS movie, as they’re literally in the film to do nothing at all). It’s an added bit that again adds to the stylistic take Lamberto Bava has on the material, as he’s trying to inject a very youthful “rock ‘n roll” feel to the proceedings that mostly works.
Unfortunately, the bonkers finale of DEMONS finds such a perfect, open ended and epic feeling finishing point, that it’s more than a little disappointing that DEMONS 2 doesn’t explore the massive questions Argento’s script has just asked. Instead of getting the hinted at “world overrun by Demons” that the first film’s final frames promised, we are simply treated to a Roman apartment complex (that isn’t even close to being as architecturally interesting as The Metropol) being overrun by our titular green little nasties.
In many ways, DEMONS 2 feels like a lost GREMLINS sequel amped to 15. As birthday parties, sexual rendezvous and even pregnant yoga are all partaken in by the denziens who inhabit the high rise, a televised hunt of the Demons that have seemingly taken over the world unleashes the monsters into the residents’ living rooms. And much like the zombies of Romero’s DEAD films, any time a Demon attacks and punctures the skin of a human being, they are then turned into one of the evil, fanged beings and driven to slaughter any warm-blooded creature in their path.
The Demons in the sequel seem to have shed any fear of bodily harm, making them slightly more entertaining than their original brethren. As they chase, stalk and slah their human victims, the horde also seem to have no problem flinging themselves down stairwells and leaping through burning wreakage. It’s just a shame that their constantly entertaining antics aren’t utilized in service of a greater film, as Argento (who returns, inexplicably, to pen the super bland script) and Bava seem content to simply remake the first movie. A perfect movie analogy would be EVIL DEAD 2, only Raimi at least had the good sense to add a tone change to his pseudo reboot, where DEMONS 2 is just as stone silly as the first film.
I apologize if it sounds like I’m coming down on the DEMONS Dulogy, because that’s not the case at all. Both films are perfectly serviceable bits of Italian horror, and there’s enough puss and blood to make even the most hardened gorehound happy. Without these two films, we would never have Tony (Bobby Rhodes), the smooth pimp who takes his rage out on the projector with a chair in the first film (while hilariously Hulking out and screaming “SMASH EVERYTHING!”) and is then seemingly reincarnated as Hank in the second (though the hilariously awful dubbing remains). And though Bava would never reach the same giddily batshit heights of DEMONS again, his dual doses of punk rock insanity are something I’m sure his late father would’ve been proud to see (Mario unfortunately passed in 1980, a mere week after Lamberto’s debut, MACABRE, premiered in Italy).
Feature #24 – 10/24/12 – Welcome to Saturday Night Frights! (DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW  & BAD RONALD )
The 70s and early 80s were something of a “golden age” for TV movies. While there were a plethora of great options at the local theater (this holds true more for the 70s than the 80s), sometimes it was just as easy to catch a great film on the “small screen” as it was on the “silver screen”. Movies like DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and GARGOYLES (which I think is awful but other people seem to like) were made to scare and thrill families in their living rooms while they enjoyed a nice, home cooked meal (or microwavable dinner…depending on mom’s cooking capacity). DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is one of the best examples of these types of films, as it boasts a great cast (including a young Larry Drake and a “younger” Lane Smith, RIP, who kinda looks like a poor man’s William Devane here), atmospheric direction and a solid script that puts a solid spin on a tired “supernatural revenge” premise.
Bubba (Drake) is a lovable half-wit, the Lenny of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW who is content to spend his afternoons playing with the local children, especially Mary Lee. The townsfolk, including Otis (a very pudgy, very menacing Charles Durning, who portrays one of the greatest postal worker stereotypes I’ve ever seen) frown upon Bubba’s “play time”, knowing eventually he’ll end up accidentally hurting one of the children with his retard strength. Unfortunately for Bubba, on the same day Otis begins infecting other men of the town with his prejudices, Mary Lee is attacked by a dog. Bubba, of course, is blamed for the girl’s horrible fate and a lynch mob is formed. They find Bubba, hiding in a Scarecrow outfit in the middle of a field, and promptly execute him via “redneck firing squad”. Justice isn’t served, as the boys get off because there were no witnesses and no “evidence” (uh, hey…Mr. District Attorney, what about Bubba’s bullet riddled body?). So, in true scare film fashion, Bubba rises from the grave, dressed as the Scarecrow, to exact bloody revenge.
Actually, that’s a bit misleading. While I enjoyed this film immensely (despite the weird “evidence” logic gap), I was disappointed by the lack of screen time the Scarecrow actually gets. Even when the movie jumps into full on “revenge picture” mode, the Scarecrow is usually off-screen, lurking in the shadows or only caught in quick Michael Meyers-esque daytime glimpses. While I understand and appreciate director Frank De Felitta (who wrote the novel and screenplay for the “Barbara Hershey gets raped by a ghost” uber classic THE ENTITY) attempting to create suspense with an unseen force, the Scarecrow get up Bubba hid in is so cool looking that I wanted to see more of it. If they had gone with a more “visible” approach, 1981 could’ve been the year that two killers, both who prefer burlap sacks as fashion accessories, became icons (though SCARECROW was released five months after FRIDAY THE 13th PART II, which makes me wonder if there was, in fact, extra footage of the killer, and the producers opted to cut it to avoid comparisons/confusion/cries of “plagiarism”).
What the film lacks in iconic images, it more than makes up for in character development and plotting. There are nice, human touches to all of the men who wrongfully kill Bubba (Lane Smith’s “questioning” is good enough for all of them) and Charles Durning’s Otis is evil in a way that only a character in a movie can be (upon hearing about Mary Ellen’s death, he pulls a gun from a drawer just below the window he works at the post office!). And while he is limited to the first act, Larry Drake brings a sweet, child-like quality of Bubba that makes you really feel awful when he’s gunned down.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW brought me back to being a kid and watching family friendly scare flicks with my parents on Halloween. While gore hounds will be extremely disappointed, those looking for a great, creepy “first horror film” to show their son or daughter should pick up the blu ray from VCI Entertainment (which looks gorgeous). A satisfying supernatural shocker, DARK NIGHT brings scares the whole family can enjoy.
BAD RONALD is a great half of a movie, and by this I mean, at seventy-one minutes, there just isn’t enough time for driector Buzz Kulik to capitalize on the awesome set up he presents in the movie’s first half-hour. The tale of a good kid who does a very, very bad thing, BAD RONALD has an amazing central idea, but ultimately leaves the audience wanting due to a truncated network run time (the movie originally aired in 1974 on ABC as a part of their “movie of the week” program).
Ronald (Scott Jacoby, of the “everybody wants to molest Jodie Foster” epic, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE) is just like every other nerdy kid: he wants a girl, can’t get the girl and then, in a fit of rage, ends up accidentally killing another child who constantly berates him. But unlike every other nerdy kid, Ronald decides to bury the girl’s body instead of going to the police. When he confesses the crime to his ailing mother, she opts to create a secret room in their home to hide him, completely undetectable by the police who come asking questions. His mother creates a set of rules for Ronald: don’t ever let yourself be seen, and never come out unless she gives him the “special signal”. Unfortunately, the “rules” work too well and, after his mother dies unexpectedly, he finds himself trapped inside the walls of the prison he once called home.
Time passes, and so does Ronald’s sanity, as he paints murals on the walls that tell the tales of a fantastical realm in which he is the ruler. When a new family moves in (headed by a very skinny, very patriarchal Dabney Coleman), Ronald becomes obsessed with the blond, pretty daughter of the household. He will do anything to have her, including kidnapping and tying up her boyfriend inside his tiny prison.
Even as I write this, I can’t help but marvel at how beautifully simplistic the movie is. Ronald evolves from being a sad, pathetic boy who made a mistake to a crazed, maniacal killer in a very believable way (imagine if you were locked in the same room for what appears to be months on end), and the final twenty minutes of the movie are incredibly tense. The problem is, they also feels incredibly rushed, as the movie shifts gears from being a quiet, psychological bit of horror to a full blown slasher, with Ronald stalking about the house and terrorizing the girls. Once his crimes are discovered, the movie just ends and, in many ways, what should be the end of the second act really just becomes the end of the movie, as no epilogue or even resolution is given.
It’s a shame that BAD RONALD’s potential doesn’t seem fully realized, as not only is the concept incredible, the performances Kulik gets out of his actors are quite good (specifically Kim “Zira” Hunter as Ronald’s over-protective mother). But the near non-existent third act makes the entire film feel shorted in a quite literal way and completely kills the tension the director takes so much time and effort to build.
BAD RONALD is a cut above your average TV movie (though it’s no DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW). While it still has the flat, unimaginative look that so many low budget Movies of the Week from that era suffered from, the movie has enough on its mind to warrant a viewing. It’s just a shame that there isn’t an expanded edition, as Ronald is one bad kid who deserved just a little bit better.