(originally published in Re/Public on October 27, 2014)
In the spirit of the Halloween, I decided to dedicate some evenings solely to watch some genre films that were either certain “hidden gems” recommended to me, or are just titles that have evaded my eyes so far. I’ll report my discoveries in this form of mini-reviews. I’ve tried to cover various aspects of the horror genre in these sessions, so for example this one will have one “killer doll”-film, one “deranged cannibal family”-film and one traditional slasher. So, without further due, let’s begin:
Dir: Stuart Gordon
Stuart Gordon has been one of my favorite genre filmmakers ever since I saw “Re-Animator”. Gordon has a certain knack of creating absolutely horrific imagery and moments of tension, but still make it all be slightly tongue-in-cheek. Or even through it. “Re-Animator” started Gordon’s long-running streak of H.P.Lovecraft-adaptations, continuing with “From Beyond”, “Castle Freak”, “Dagon” and an episode in the “Masters of Horror”-anthology series called “Dreams in the Witch-House”. Those titles represent the most solid body of Gordon’s work, but he has made some other little classics as well, such as “The Pit and The Pendulum”,”Robot Jox”, “Fortress”, “Space Truckers” and the one I finally caught up with – “Dolls”:
Ralph: “Ya know, I can remember every toy I had as a kid.”
Gabriel: “And they remember you, Ralph. Toys are very loyal, and that is a fact.”
Dolls is an Italian-American co-production – filmed in italy, but storywise taking place in the English countryside. An obnoxious american couple, David and Rosemary accompanied by the husbands’ daughter from a previous marriage, Judy, get stuck on a muddy road in the middle of a thunderstorm, and seek shelter in a gothic-looking mansion(I’ve seen enough flicks to know this is NEVER a good idea). The owners of the mansion are an elderly couple, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke, who very politely welcome the guests, and later on a few more people who have also been stuck in the mud; a young man called Ralph and two hitch-hiking Punk girls Enid and Isabel. The Hartwicke’s are apparently toymakers. The entire house is filled to the brim with dolls and toys of varying nature. As the night falls, Judy is awoken to some whispering sounds, an while investigating, she witnesses one of the Punk girls, Isabel, being attacked and dragged to the innards of the house. She was caught doing some looting during the night, see, and discovers the hard way that all the dolls in the house are actually alive – and VERY aggressive towards any kind of ill behaviour. Pretty soon other meaner-spirited guests ar eattacked as well, finally leaving just Judy, and the very childish Ralph, who she has befriended. The Hartwickes are revealed to be, in fact, a couple of witches, who are fed up with the negativity and meanness of adults and are actually testing all the visitors who come by their house. If a person has kept their childhood spirit, they are deemed worthy and are allowed to leave. If not….well – through some gross imagery it is revealed that they are in fact turned into the dolls.
“Dolls” is a very beautifully filmed, eerily atmospheric, highly economic(77 minutes – WITH credits) piece of storytelling. The doll effects – which apparently took over a year of post-production to make – are a skillful combination of puppetry and stop-motion. I’m a sucker for stop-motion. I just dig it. And it makes the puppets actions look insanely creepy here. You really believe these little motherfuckers are out to inflict some serious bodily harm. And the gross reveal of what they look like under their surface in one for the “icky”-books. The child actor, Carrie Lorraine, does a good job in making Judy not be either an over-smart brat or a annoying whiner – two traps that children in horror films easily step in(I’m talking to you, kid in “Cujo”). Stephen Lee(who later starred in “WarGames and Robocop 2 amongst others) manages to make the nerdy Ralph into a likeable unlikely hero as well. Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason make the Hartwickes both likeable at first and more sinister and creepy as the film goes on. Really the only somewhat missteps in the films acting come from Carolyn Purdy Gordon(director’s wife), who overplays her “evil stepmother”-routine waaaay overboard, and the two Punk girls who look like they would me more at home in a film like “Class of 1984″ or “Savage Streets”, but it was in the spirit of the times, I guess. But as a whole, “Dolls” is definitely worth a watch. There were apparently some plans for a sequel that never got anywhere, although the producer of this film, Charles Band, might have recycled some ideas for his own “Killer doll”-series; the “Puppet Master”-films.
SPIDER BABY(1964, released 1967/68)
Dir: Jack Hill
Continuing on with the “gothic house inhabited by creepy families”-theme, Jack Hill’s(Coffy, Foxy Brown) directing debut “Spider Baby” is an entirely different animal altogether. Filmed in back & white, with a budget of around 65,000 dollars, “Spider Baby” tells the story of the three remaining children of the Merrye family – Virginia, Elizabeth and Ralph, who live in a live in a decaying rural mansion with their guardian and chaffeur Bruno(Lon Chaney jr, in his final screen performance). As we are educated in the opening narration of the film, the children suffer from a rare(so rare that it only covers the Merrye’s) syndrome that causes them to mentally, socially, and physically regress down the evolutionary ladder, starting at around the age of 10. Now, these children are already late in their teens, so they’re already affected by the disease – in various states. Whereas Virginia and Elizabeth are still speaking, but display some disturbing behavior(Virginia, the titular “Spider Baby” has an affection towards spiders and actually pretends to be one. She also eats bugs.) and complete lack of a sense of right & wrong, Ralph has regressed into an even more feral state, not able to speak anymore but communicating through grunts and groans and hunting small animals around the property lines. Bruno has made a promise to their dying father, that he would take care of the children and never let the outside world in on their special lives.
Elizabeth: “Spiders don’t eat other spiders.”
Virginia: “Cannibal spiders do.”
The story begins as a mailman arrives to Merrye House. As no one is answering the door, he spots an open window. When he’s about halfway crawled in, Virginia enters the room. Moving in a strange manner, she throws a net over the mailman, saying that “spider’s caught something in it’s web”. The she says that spider’s gonna sting now…” and takes two knives and proceeds to slice and stab the mailman to death. Arriving from a doctor’s with Ralph, Bruno discovers the body and is surprisingly easy-mannered in chastising her about the killing. He then discovers the letter that the mailman was bringing. It seems that a distant relatives; cousin Emily and her younger brother Peter are going to arrive at the house with a lawyer – on that same day – to discuss the guardianship of the children as well as the liquifying of the Merrye inheritance. Bruno and the children quickly dispose the body and clean up the traces of any foul play, as the unwanted guests begin to arrive at the house. Completely disregarding anything Bruno tries to say, the lawyer – named “Schlocker”, but Bruno keeps calling him “Shocker” – is adamant that the children must be closed to some facility that would best serve their special needs. As night falls, Schlocker and Emily will stay for the night at the house, as Peter and Schlockers assistant Ann will go to an Inn. Schlocker tries to investigate the strange goings-on in the basement, and discovers some people living in a pit there – revealed to be the children’s Uncle Ned and two aunts who have regressed into the state of wild animals – and is caught up and killed by Virginia and Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Emily models some black nightclothes she found in a closet, as Ralph is peeking in. After being chased and then molested by Ralph, Emily becomes sexually aggressive and murderous. Meanwhile, Bruno realizes that he is losing control of the household and goes to a nearby construction site to steal some dynamite. As he returns to the house(along with Peter and Ann, who couldn’t find a room in the town), everything culminates in an suspenseful and explosive finale.
What a fun, bizarre ride this one was! Starting with the kooky title sequence and the title song actually sung by Chaney, the mood is set right from the beginning – this twisted tale is not to be taken seriously. Best to just let it slyly grip a hold of you and just keep surprising you. Hill creates wonders with a practically shoestring budget, casting some colleagues and friends in parts, but still managing to get the genre legend Chaney in the pivotal part of Bruno, for 2500 dollar reward. The film was shot in SEVEN days, but still manages to have creative and moody photography and well-paced scenes. The actors portraying the children; Beverly Washburn(Elizabeth), Jill Banner(Virginia) and Sid Haig(Ralph) are exceptional. Escpecially memorable is Haig – a future genre legend and a constant player in Jack Hill’s films – whose animalistic performance as Ralph is a hoot(his “dress up” for a Dinner party had me howling with laughter). The lawyer, Schlocker, is properly overplayed as a greedy scumbag(he even has Hitler moustache, for Pete’s sake!) by Karl Schanzer, as is the greedy cousin Emily by Carol Ohmart. Peter and Ann are the likeable “normal” and wholesome people of this tale. But the major player in this film is without a doubt Lon Chaney jr. He makes Bruno into a loveable but flawed man, who made a sacred promise to a dead man, clearly loves these children as if they were his own, but has let the mad antics overflow him a bit, so he’s clearly gone in too deep. There are also some very clever in-jokes about Chaney’s most famous role as Lawrence Talbot in “The Wolf Man”.
I believe it was Mr.Nick Nightly who recommended this flick at some discussion, so props to ‘ya Nick for bringing this film into my knowledge!
Dir: Tony Maylam
“The Burning” has an interesting historic place in cinema; it’s the first film ever produced by Miramax. Goes to show you, that even the Oscar-hogging “art-house” film companies gotta start from somewhere. And this really was a company effort, as the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, have story/screenplay-credits among the producing duties. Hell – Harvey even gets a “created by”-credit. The third creative mind behind this was Brad Grey, who has been the CEO of Paramount for years now. The group was at the time desperate to get a break in the movie business, so they put together a story and a short representation, took the package to Cannes, hoping to get funding – actually turning down some lower-figure offerings. After a deal was struck, they met – though connections – the director Tony Maylam and as Maylam states ” once he came on board things moved very quickly. The screenplay was written in just six weeks and was sculpted to conform to the emerging genre conventions of the time. As it was, the film takes place mostly outside and is set in summer, so there was only a small window of opportunity to make the film or, perhaps, have to wait until the following year”. They set out to make something different, and I gotta say one thing: in the whole of “Death to all Camp Counselors”-genre, “The Burning” is a surprisingly effective and vicious one.
Camp Counselor: “They never found his body, but they say his spirit lives in the forest. This forest.
A maniac, a thing no longer human. They say he lives on whatever he can catch. Eats them raw,
alive maybe. And every year he picks on a summer camp and seeks his revenge for the terrible things
those kids did to him. Every year he kills. Right now he’s out there. Watching. Waiting. So don’t look;
he’ll see you. Don’t breathe; he’ll hear you. Don’t move; you’re dead!”
The titular “Burning” occurs right at the beginning of the movie, as a group of kids on a Summer Camp have had enough of the antics of a drunk, sadistic and bullying Camp caretaker called “Cropsy”. They decide to pull a little prank on the man, and as pranks in these movies tend to, it goes horribly awry as Cropsy is accidentally set on fire – as is effectively the whole camp, we are later told in a campfire tale(the whole concept of the film is actually based on a campfire story told at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. The story is still in circulation) – and he falls down a large hill into the river. Well – miraculously Cropsy survives. We meet him in the burn ward of a local hospital, horribly disfigured. After five years of rehabilitation, he is signed out of the hospital, but we pretty soon learn that Cropsy is really NOT ready to return into society as he brutally murders a prostitute that is horrified by his disfigured looks. We then cut to a new summer camp, with kids and counselors going by their usual hijinks which always happen in these movies. Cropsy is lurking nearby, hellbent on revenge of his disfigurement, and as a group of older kids are to partake in a 3-day canoe trip, he sees his opportunity and starts to pick them off one by one. Everything culminates in a final desperate standoff inside a derelict mine.
The first thing that comes to mind after the first watching of “The Burning” is how damn good it looks. Unlike so many films of the slasher-genre, there is a very talented director/cameraman-team working here. This film does NOT look like a low-budget film. There is scope, there is inventive camerawork, there is a great use of locations. Tony Maylam was primarily a documentary director before this, and he really provides a unique vision and avoids all the usual potholes where so many genre directors fell. The film was edited by Jack Sholder, who would later direct films like “Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2″ and “The Hidden”. There is a wonderful, moody synth score by “Yes”-keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The acting is very natural throughout the whole cast, from the main players Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres(Later starring in “Bloodsport”) and Larry Joshua, who are the main counselors, all the way to some first-timers like Jason Alexander(George from Seinfeld), Fisher Stevens(Short Circuit, Super Mario Bros.) and Holly Hunter(in an almost non-speaking part). But the REAL star of the movie is Tom Savini, and his incredible make-up and gore effects. Savini turned down “Friday the 13th Part 2″ to work on this film – a gut feeling tells me he was fascinated at least partially by Cropsy’s weapon-of-choice: a large pair of Gardening Shears. Holy shit, is Savini on fire here, as he creates one creative death scene after another! This is also probably the reason why this film has had a LOT of problems with censorship in several places – including being proclaimed as a “video nasty” in the UK, Cut in Australia, outright banned in several countries like in my native Finland – where there actually STILL haven’t been a proper home video-release, even though the ironed grip of censorship laws passed away long ago. But – i got a hold of it, via importing means and I was not disappointed. Good craftsmanship, good acting, creative killings and proper amounts of T&A – a fine specimen in the slasher-genre this is.