Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Nine)

Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Nine)

Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Nine) 940 225 Joel

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 judgment, 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 seventeen and eighteen revolve around a pair of weird, atmospheric ’70s flicks and a double shot of Wes Craven…

Feature #17 – 10/17/12 – A Pair of Little Seen Atmospheric Oddities From the ’70s (DEATHDREAM [1974] & LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH [1971])

DEATHDREAM is an angry movie. A film about the how the horrors of war can change a human being irrevocably, it uses its supernatural elements (in this case vampirism) as a metaphor, not just a tool for elementary scare tactics. In many ways, DEATHDREAM feels like it would be at home in the filmography of George Romero, an artist who was interested in creating similar allegories.

Bob Clark is mostly known for his holiday classic, A CHRISTMAS STORY, and his raunchy teen comedy, PORKY’S. But before making those mainstream hits, he toiled away in indie horror. Starting with the zombie movie, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (which is an absolute snoozer), he cut his filmmaking teeth creating rubber faced ghouls and desperately horny teens. It wasn’t until DEATHDREAM that he would add deeper dimensions of character and emotion, as it seems the story of young Andy’s homecoming from Vietnam is a very personal one for Clark.

The plot to DEATHDREAM is relatively simplistic, and that straightforwardness allows the film to focus on the more interesting subtexts going on beneath the surface. Andy Brooks (an utterly chill inducing, dead eyed Richard Backus) is a young Vietnam soldier killed on the battlefield. While dying, he is suddenly transfixed by an ambiguous object. Back home, a soldier reports the tragic news to the Brooks family (which includes John Marley and Lynn Carlin, of John Cassavettes extraordinary FACES, as his father and mother). However, on a local highway, Andy reemerges as a silent hitchhiker. Much later that evening, hours after a tranquil Brooks family dinner, Andy returns home. The family is ecstatic, but Andy is despondent, much to his father’s chagrin. He stumbles through the motions of civilian life, but eventually the family’s happiness turns into curiosity and later fear for Andy’s condition. Something is definitely wrong with him and Andy’s relationship with his father becomes increasingly strained as it becomes clear the boy may have been involved in two local murders (where the deaths “fed” him in an unusual way).

Its obvious what Clark is getting at here. Like so many soldiers of that war, the “old” Andy died on the battlefield and returned home a souless, empty shell of a human being.  Clark and Ormsby take the transformation a bit futher, making Andy a very literal “monster”, as the Vietnam War used him up, sucking every last of humanity the young boy had in him. The subtext adds a layer of sadness to Andy’s character and, even though he gives you creeps as he injects one of his victim’s blood straight into his veins (another obvious bit of Vietnam Vet imagery, as so many brought home drug habits), you can’t help but feel sorry for his plight. He served his country and, in turn, lost his soul.

Besides unveiling Clark’s directorial talents, DEATHDREAM also served as a training ground for two other horror icons: Tom Savini and Alan Ormsby. Savini’s legendary talents speak for themselves, but it is worth noting he considers DEATHDREAM an important rung on the ladder of his success. The DVD (from fellow exploitation icon Bill Lustig’s amazing label, Blue Underground) features a 10-minute featurette about Savini titled “The Early Years” that has the young makeup artist saying just how much DEATHDREAMmeant to his career. Screenwriter Alan Ormsby wrote DEATHDREAM, and he later wrote CAT PEOPLE for Paul Schrader and THE SUBSTITUTE (yup, the one with Tom Berenger), in addition to frequently collaborating with Bob Clark. Ormsby also directed and wrote DERANGED in 1974 (the same year DEATHDREAM hit the States from its native Canada), a biopic about serial killer Ed Gein that again showcased Savini’s early makeup work.

There’s a lot to love about DEATHDREAM, but I can also see many people being turned off by its overtly grim tone. Unlike CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and his follow up to DEATHDREAM, the holiday slasher classic (and pre-cursor to HALLOWEEN), BLACK CHRISTMAS, Clark would inject zero humor into the proceedings. But those looking for a dour, thoughtful piece of cinema with one hell of a downer ending will be thrilled beyond words. A true product of its times, DEATHDREAMis a damn fine horror picture.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, which is the very definition of “unremarkable”.

I first saw LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATHat an Exhumed Films triple feature in 2005 (I believe the second and third movies were actually Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGSand Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS). A definite “slow burn”, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is the low budget tale of our titular heroine, a recently released psych patient who moves with her cellist husband and hippie friend into a New England estate known simply as “the old Bishop place”. Upon arriving, she attempts to ignore the whispering voice in her head and the ghostly apparitions surrounding the property.  Is Jessica going crazy? Or is the house really haunted by the spirits of its past?

I honestly can’t give you an answer either way, as the film’s attempts to shroud its narrative in ambiguity create too many unanswered questions. The locals tell tales of a girl drowning in the lake that surrounds the home, and that she now roams the countryside as a vampire. And an old family portrait shows the girl bearing quite a resemblance to the beatnik squatter Jessica finds living in their new house. But that can’t be right…can it? The resemblance has to be a conicidence. Or is it?

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH creates solid atmosphere with its misty photography and haunting score. The use of sound in the film is top notch as well, as long stretches of silence give way to jolting pianos and jarring jump scares, something I usually hate but found worked quite effectively here. I’d be interested to see if Tobe Hooper is a fan of this film, as the aural design would be replicated in the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, full of clangs and white noise. And much like that classic, the scares never feel cheap, but are used in an effort to build Jessica’s growing paranoia.

The performances are good, if a bit uneven at times, and the attention to character building over straight horror (a solid portion of the film is devoted to how Jessica’s mental disorder puts a strain on her marriage) is something you don’t see in most scare films anymore. Unfortunately, the lack of answers grows frustrating after a while and the film, while only running a scant 88 minutes, drags quite a bit.

A true encapsulation of the filmmaking style of the time, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH feels like a great concept that never fully gels into a completely coherent film. With such a great title and premise, it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t snatched it up to remake (I know I sound like a broken record here). With a slightly more focused script, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH could be a truly wonderful little horror movie.

Feature #18 – 10/18/12 – Two From the “Master” of Horror: Wes Craven! (SHOCKER [1989] & NEW NIGHTMARE [1994])

Wes Craven’s nickname should be “50/50″, because those are the odds that, whenever he makes a movie, it’ll be any good. While it’s considered a “classic”, no one can say A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is completely flawless (the ending, when you think about it, makes completely no sense), and even Craven’s “solid” movies, like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, suffer from glaring flaws (God, those bumbling small town cops are horrible). To me, SCREAMwill always be his best film (just rewatched the first one on blu and it holds up like a motherfucker. The sequels…not so much…), and when you combine this fact with the absolute stinkers he’s made (DEADLY FRIEND, THE HILLS HAVE EYES II, CURSED, MUSIC OF THE FUCKING HEART), the guy comes off like an above average Tobe Hooper, not a John Carpenter or George Romero.

SHOCKER is a film that is usually lumped by most into the “stinker” category. And, for the most part, that’s right. But only half right. In 2010, Craven directed the monument to incoherent filmmaking, MY SOULD TO TAKE. Watching that film unfold is how the last moments must be before you dehydrate and die in the middle of the desert. It’s hallucinatory, bizarre, and you just kind of want it to end already. In many ways, SHOCKER feels like the a stepping stone to that colossally entertaining piece of crap, as the last thirty minutes find Craven almost brazenly defying logic.

What sucks is that SHOCKERactually starts off great because it’s, well…coherent. Following a very ELM STREETfeeling credits sequence (where a man is using a buck knife to splice television pieces together in a grimy lair), we meet Jonathan Parker (future FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS mastermind Peter Berg), a rising high school football star. He’s got a pretty girlfriend, a supportive coach, and a loving police detective foster-father (the always welcome Michael Murphy). Enter Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi or, as you and I know him, Skinner from THE X-FILES), notorious mass murderer of suburban families. He slaughters Jonathan’s mother and sister (which Jonathan somehow witnesses in a dream before it happens) and then Jonathan psychically leads his father and the rest of the police force to Pinker’s television repair shop. He, of course, eludes capture and murders Jonathan’s girlfriend.

Up until this point, everything pretty much follows an easily discernible bit of logic. The psychic dream stuff, you would assume, will be explained later (spolier: it isn’t) and there’s only been minor logic gaps (like…why would they just let Jonathan and his girlfriend hang out alone after Pinker has just slaughtered his relatives and then gotten a good look at Jonathan while escaping the TV shop?). But, overall, it’s thrilling, well paced, and chock full of that great atmosphere that made A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET so enjoyable. In all honesty, there are so many similarities between this movie and the ELM STREET films that I couldn’t help but wonder why Wes didn’t just rework the script to be another sequel.

Jonathan then (psychically, of course) leads the police to a murder in progress, where they apprehend Pinker. Time passes, Pinker is sentenced to death and, on the day of his execution, the guards find him worshiping at a self-made television altar (his last wish was to have a TV brought to his cell), where some kind of spirit comes out and electrocutes him. The guards are able to revive the maniac (not without Pinker snapping awake and attacking the poor saps), and then Pinker is promptly put to death via electric chair, but not before delivering a speech to Jonathan and his dad (they’re witnesses at the execution) that pretty much says “Luke, I’m your real psycho killer daddy”.

The whole time I found myself thinking, “OK…so I’m still with you Wes. And I’m entertained. So really, who gives a shit about logic?” I quickly regretted giving him, as my dad would say, “enough rope to hang himself”.

Pinker comes back, but as conducted electricity. Also…he’s able to jump into other people’s bodies. It’s actually kinda cool at first (and nice to see where JASON GOES TO HELL stole the idea from). But then Pinker possess everyone in a small park, one after another, and it kind of gets ridiculous. I’m sorry, but the movie lost me from that point on. SHOCKERkind of just drags from there (at almost two hours, this film is ENTIRELY too long), hurtling toward a climax that is so preposterous, so inexplicably batshit as to defy explanation. But I’m going to give it my best shot (HERE THERE BE SPOILERS):

At one point, Jonathan’s loving football coach (who should’ve been played by Carl Weathers) is possessed by Pinker…until the ghost of Jonathan’s girlfriend appears and tells him to “will it out” (the ghost will later appear to guide Jonathan in his quest against Pinker, kind of like “Grandpa’s Ghost” leads little Joshua in TROLL 2). It seems that Pinker feeds off of the “life force” inside of each human, but if yours is strong enough, you can kick his ass to the curb. Needless to say, the coach fails and then Pinker makes him jam a knife through his own chest. Everyone’s sad, and Jonathan gets the football team to rally together to execute a plan that he’s (again, inexplicably) devised to trap Pinker in TV Land.

This is where it gets tricky. Jonathan somehow is able to wrestle Pinker INTO A TELEVISION, where they fight and tumble through classic TV shows (like Mary Tyler Moore), music videos (I think that was Alice Cooper) and recorded moments in history (like the H-Bomb tests…who the hell is watching this?). At midnight, his football buddies are supposed to cut the town’s main power tower off (using just an axe, apparently), trapping Pinker in TV Land forever. It’s a sequence so stupid and strange, that you can’t help but grin ear to ear while watching it.

Oh…this should be a good time to clue you guys in: I loved every second of this nonsense. It’s so weird, so defiant in its stance against logic and reason that it almost becomes a piece of abstract art. Craven throws narrative to the dogs and just lets the crazy flow. It’s deliriously wonderful, and really has to be seen to believed.

Seek SHOCKERout. It’s not “boring bad” like CURSED, but instead is a great film to watch. Make sure you grab your beer bottle cooler (it’s a long movie) and just kick back with. You’ll laugh. You’ll gasp. You’ll scream “WTF?” more than once. But as the credits roll, I guarantee you’ll be entertained. It’s up in the air as to which side of the “50/50″ coin this truly lands on, but I’d say it lands on the “solid” side.

NEW NIGHTMARE felt like the obvious choice to follow SHOCKER with, as it almost explains why that film was so incoherent. Craven was obviously bored with the actual character of Freddy Kreuger. Relegated to a pop culture piece of iconography, the gloved killer had lost his ability to be scary long ago. After having very little to do with FREDDY’S DEAD (falsely subtitled THE FINAL NIGHTMARE), Craven didn’t actual resurrect the character, but instead let Freddy usher a new monster into “the real world”. Deliciously meta in a way he’d go on to perfect in the SCREAM movies, NEW NIGHTMARE is, in my opinion, one of the more wrongly underloved films of all time.

NEW NIGHTMARE is very much a horror film within a horror film. The film follows actress Heather Langenkamp, director Wes Craven and the rest of the crew (both fictional and playing themselves, as is the case with New Line head honcho of the time, Bob Shaye) as they embark upon making another sequel in the ELM STREET franchise. But Wes is making the movie in order to stop evil from entering this world, as the first six films apparently helped usher in a demon that manifests itself in the form of Freddy.

Where SCREAM would be a commentary on horror films, NEW NIGHTMARE is really a commentary on fervor. Much like the Sutter Cane novels in John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, these works of fiction are made real by the multitudes that take in and believe them. In many ways, I also wonder if Craven is relaying to us, via fiction, some of his disdain for both fans of the franchise and the franchise itself. The demons return to earth because, not only do people not believe in them anymore, they’re also angered by the death of their fictional manifestion on the big screen. They want more Freddy because, without him, the people don’t get their fill of “pure evil”. “The only way to stop Freddy is to make another movie,” Craven says at one point, making it literally clear that he wanted to stop the ELM STREET movies and their clamoring fans in their tracks.

Craven also seems interested in the effects making these movies has on its stars and creators. Heather has trouble sleeping and almost fears the sight of her movie when her young son has it on the television. When Craven is said to be writing the “new script”, his nightmares keep him awake night after night, to the point that Langenkamp is concerned and instantly knows the background of the director’s seemingly legendary dreams.  “Nothing good comes from these,” Craven seems to be saying and even Robert Englund is haunted by visions of his evil alter ego.

None of this would matter if the film didn’t work, and it really does. Craven’s shot composition, while rather workmanlike as it always is, is lit to moody perfection at times. And the look of “new Freddy” is kind of terrifying, as the cartoon, rubbery visage that became his trademark is replaced with an angular, demonic face. Also gone are the “witty” one liners and jokey, tongue-in-cheek nature of Freddy’s attacks. NEW NIGHTMARE is deadly serious, and all the better for it, as its the first movie since the original that is actually, you know…scary.

If Craven’s intention was to throw fans off and kill the franchise, he succeeded. While the film made $18 million at the BO (over double its budget), it was the lowest grossing, and final entry in the original series (unless you count FREDDY VS. JASON or that abomination of a remake). It’s just as well, as this is the best way to take out an icon. By reinventing him almost completely and putting an entirely new spin on the series, Craven made his greatest creation scary again. And that’s really all we want from our horror right? To thrill and chill and make us question why we ever liked these movies (or want to make them) in the first place.