Okay – since ’tis the season to be “groovy!”, I’m going to drop these “Night Terrors”-columns for the next couple weeks. This first one doesn’t really have a unifying theme – just three movies that I took a look at last week. Enjoy!
And remember: there be SPOILERS!
Race With the Devil (1975)
Dir: Jack Starrett
Scr: Wes Bishop, Lee Frost
Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda), co-owners of a successful motorcycle dealership, have spent the last few years building their dream and decide it’s finally time for a well-earned vacation. With their wives Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) and Roger’s and Kelly’s dog, the group pack up their stuff to a brand new RV – that Frank has bought – with a plan to drive from San Antonio to Aspen for a skiing holiday. At the first night’s pit stop next to a river, the guys see some bizarre activity at the other side of the river. As they get closer to investigate, they witness a strange ritual. After first snubbing it off as “hippies”, things suddenly take a turn for the worse as the guys witness a young girl being stabbed to death as human sacrifice. After being spotted the group makes a quick getaway from the robed worshippers to a nearby town. Returning to the site with the Sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) and his deputies, the guys find all evidence to a homicide being wiped out and a dead dog placed as the possible victim. The sheriff thinks the case is closed – considering the guys were also drinking the previous night, but Roger secretly takes a blood sample off the ground – intending to give it to the Police in some bigger city. Meanwhile, the women find a note placed in the RV, warning them to stay silent. As the group heads towards Amarillo where Roger intends to present the blood sample, the group finds themselves constantly watched by shady characters, running into non-working telephones and their vehicle getting subjected to escalatingly sinister vandalism as the Satanic Cult closes in on them…
Well – here’s another one that I’ve HEARD a lot about but it just had evaded me until now. As I have now seen it, I can definitely see where for example Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer took a lot of influence for their film “Drive Angry“. It’s a peculiar mix of the sort-of.typical 70’s genre of “Car Chase-movie” as well as “Devil Worship-movie”. But it really works! A lot of that has to do with the absolutely solid leading man duo here; you really can’t go wrong with having two icons like Warren Oates and Peter Fonda there. The two guys have such an amazing chemistry that you just absolutely feel and believe the back-story of these guys. I had to actually look this up and I was surprised that Fonda and Oates only starred together in TWO movies besides this (“The Hired Hand” from 1971 and “92 in the Shade” from ’75 – I might have to seek these out). That’s like the Ultimate badass-pairing right there. Another surprising thing was the director, Jack Starrett, who as a name first glanced didn’t ring any bells, but after taking a look I noticed that “holy shit, he was Galt in ‘First Blood’!“. See, I had no idea. Turns out Starrett was an actor and/or the director in a lot of genre films in the 70’s, ranging from biker-films, to action, to blaxploitation. I guess the most known film he directed was “Cleopatra Jones“, from 1973. Starrett also played the incoherently rambling miner-character Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks‘ “Blazing Saddles“! See – this is why I like to dig in to these old films; you always learn something completely unexpected.
It IS pretty clear that Starrett is one you would call “workmanlike” director – the film can be described as pretty much looking like every other film in it’s era; there’s no exquisite visual flair here – very atypical 70’s visuals. Except maybe for about three moments or so: the first one being a scene where the group is just recovering from a shock of finding their dog killed and all of a sudden they get attacked by rattlesnakes that have been hidden in the RV, which I felt was a pretty well-timed “bigger shock upon a shock”-scene. Then there’s what could be called “the Big Chase” , where the Sect finally takes out the big guns and tries to box the RV in with multiple vehicles. It’s a sequence which is filled with multiple stunts and action and if you can buy the fact that an RV can take that much punishment without getting completely torn apart, it’s a whole lotta fun. It’s pretty much a modernization of that old Western-gag of the stagecoach being chased by bandits/indians; we even get a moment of Fonda standing on top of the vehicle, blasting the chasers with a shotgun. You really do get a totally different sense of thrill and excitement when you see the real guys doing real things instead of just clearly standing in front of a green-screen.
Then there’s the ending: well – this was the 70’s of course so there rarely was any sort of a happy ending in movies of this genre. It’s pretty nihilistic. And with it’s double-printed herky jerky slow motion (which, for some reason, is a technique I’ve always liked – it IS very 70’s) building up to a freeze-frame, it’s the most stylistic scene in the movie. But – thinking backwards from it; it really is the only ending that makes sense. The movie has been gradually building dread by all the bizarre characters just ogling the leads and the local law enforcement just snubbing them off, that it really is the logical finish: EVERYONE they meet was in on it.
Overall, it’s an effectively made action/horror movie – little low on the actual horror though but a nice hybrid. The action/horror combo is one subgenre that CAN sometimes work, like with “The Hitcher” and the forementioned “Drive Angry“, but it can just as easily fall right flat on it’s face like in Chuck Norris‘ “Hellbound” or “Deliver Us From Evil“(which I ripped apart in one of the earlier columns). It’s a movie that could definitely be called a “Drive-In” movie. I can certainly see this being played as a double feature with something like Wes Craven‘s “The Hills Have Eyes“(that one having a similar “city folks in a camper get in way over their heads”-theme) or Elliot Silverstein‘s “The Car” (which shares the “car chases & satanism”-theme). It delivers what it promises, without making any other profound statements on life – except perhaps that considering how long the main characters drive, it makes it look like the whole rural Texas is full of satanists.
(just a small little note – the movie also prominently features the cliche which makes me groan everytime it happens: when the warning-note it found and the wives see some mysterious runes in it, what is the first thing they say? “Let’s go to the library”. And the library of course has the exact needed occult books, which even have an illustration that looks EXACTLY LIKE THE SACRIFICE RITUAL that happened. I mean EXACTLY – I think it even has the same big tree in the background. Just a little sidenote I felt mentioning…and since this is pretty much the only scene where the female leads show any kind of pro-active behavior, it stands out even more.)
Dir: Stan Winston
Scr: Stan Winston, Richard C. Weinman, Gary Gerani, Mark Patrick Carducci
In 1957, young Ed Harley witnesses an injured man chased by someone – or someTHING – appear to his father’s farm, only to be shut out completely as his father says “we can’t be involved”. The man get brutally killed as Ed watches from his window. 30 years later older Ed (Lance Henriksen) is keeping a small store and is a single father of a son, Billy. A group of youngsters from the big city take a pit-stop by the store before going to a nearby cabin. As some of them take a rest from the long drive, two of them take out their dirtbikes and let it rip on the nearby field (here’s actually a unifying theme with “Race With the Devil – in that film Oates and Fonda ALSO had dirtbikes stored in the back of the RV and they had a little race around their camp site). Ed goes to make a delivery and leaves Billy to mind the store. As Billy runs after his pet dog, he gets hit by Joel (John D’Aquino) who is in the middle of performing a jump. The hit is hard, and Billy is mortally injured. Joel, terrified because he has been drinking and has had problems with the police before, packs up his bike and tells everyone to leave. Only Steve (Joel Hoffman) decides to stay behind to take care of the kid. Ed returns and is horrified by what he finds. He takes Billy home only to watch him die in his arms. Completely broken, Ed drives to the homestead of some mountain people, asking where “the woman” lives. One of the people shows Ed the way for some payment and he arrives to a cabin deep within the woods, where an old crone named Haggis (Florence Schauffer) lives. She says she can’t do anything for the dead, but she CAN help “set things right” and tells Ed to go dig out a creature buried under a pumpkin patch in an old gravesite. Using blood magic, the creature is awakened and “Pumpkinhead” is set to give Ed some revenge over his dead son. Only Ed soon finds out that revenge comes with a price…
Again, here is a film I had been aware of ever since my “Fangoria”-reading days in early 90’s, but one I hadn’t gotten a chance to see until now. I doubt it ever got a theatrical release here and the VHS rental tape was probably heavily censored. Oh, well – better late than never, as “Pumpkinhead” turned out to be quite a ride. The late Stan Winston was of course a legend in the field of practical makeup and creature effects, but this movie proved that he definitely had talent in the field of movie directing as well – I think that comes from learning & working with people like James Cameron. And also as I understand, Winston was always pretty involved with the scenes featuring his work anyways. And of course it helps to surround yourself with other talented people, like cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who would go on working as a DP in for example Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York”, “Body Snatchers” and Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia”). And it goes without saying that the creature effects in the film are top of the line. The titular monster has a great visual look, great movement and quite a sadistic and savagely manner of disposing it’s victims. And of course, as the creature has a connection via blood to the one who summons it, they incorporated some of Lance Henriksen’s facial features to it – which just adds to the creepiness of it.
It hit me during the scene at the old witch’s house what this movie in it’s core really is. On the surface it’s something of a hybrid of a revenge movie/kids going in the cabin, screw something up and a whole lot of creepy shit happens-movie, but what it really is is a Southern Gothic Fairy Tale. It becomes VERY obvious during that scene; the whole visual aesthetic of the Witch’s home is exactly what you would find in the pages of some Grimm Brothers story. And also the whole circular nature in which the Revenge Demon’s mechanic works: after it is destroyed, the body of the one who summoned him takes it’s place – that’s also pure fairy tale-logic right there, as is the whole “revenge comes with a terrible price”-theme. That’s the lesson that is taught to the reader – or in this case, viewer. As per the sacred rules, every fairy tale always has a lesson buried deep within it.
And there really is no one better at playing these tortured characters than Lance Henriksen. If you ever get a chance to read his biography “Not Bad For a Human“, you kinda get an idea why he is drawn into these darker roles and why he does them so well (I won’t bore you with a longer explanation – I’ll just say that Lance didn’t exactly have a happiest of childhoods). There is a moment, where Ed looks at Steve and later on Steve describes it as “he looked at me like he wanted to kill me” – and that’s exactly what Henriksen does; you don’t feel at any point in the movie like he’s acting it. Apparently Henriksen also did his usual immersion-period while prepping for the part, and brought in a whole lot of small details that ended up in the movie; the silver dollars that he gives to Haggis as payment were actually collected from pawn shops by himself. He also picked up most of the wardrobe, props and weapons like this as well, and had a set of dentures made to give himself a different look. All of this just add to the realism of his character. And make no mistake – the whole movie is pretty much Henriksen’s show, as the kids are pretty much your standard collection of slasher-movie stereotypes. Couple of notes though: the “decent guy” of the group is played by Jeff East who is mostly known as playing the young Clark Kent in Richard Donner‘s “Superman“, and Mayim Bialik made her acting debut as one of the mountain people’s daughters. Florence Schauffer is also effectively creepy as Haggis, even while buried under 65 pounds of makeup & costume.
A great lead performance, creepy monster and a lot of technical prowess behind the camera – “Pumpkinhead” is as good as a cult horror film gets. And with is pumpkin-theme it’s perfectly suited for Halloween.
We Are What We Are (2013)
Dir: Jim Mickle
Scr: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle (based on “Somos lo que hay” by Jorge Michel Grau)
A woman named Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva, “Evil Dead 2”) arrives to a little town during a downpour. As she attempts to shop for some groceries, she gets increasingly disoriented and unresponsive. As she exits the store and tries to stagger back to her car, she seems to get some sort of a seizure which causes blood coming out of her mouth, she trips and falls into a ditch filled with rainwater and drowns. The sheriff (Nick Damici) goes to tell Emma’s husband, Frank (Bill Sage) and her daughters Rose (Julia Garner), Iris (Ambyr Childers) and son Rory (Jack Gore) about her passing. Frank takes the news hard, not even managing to go and identify the body but sending the daughters to do that instead. The family is shown to be deeply religious. After the funeral, they begin to talk about Iris taking her mother’s “religious duties” as this years ritual is soon approaching and everyone is already on a fast while preparing for it. Meanwhile the town’s doctor/coroner Barrow (Michael Parks), who is still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter, finds a piece of bone from the river. After he examines the bone and finds it has been cut as if it was being prepped in a kitchen and after he makes some disturbing notices in Emma’s autopsy report, he deduces that which is also revealed to the audience: the “religious rituals” of the Parker family entail kidnapping people and eating them. Only – the daughters have now grown to an age where they are now beginning to question this lifestyle, as well as Iris developing feelings towards the town’s new deputy, Anders (Wyatt Russell).
“We Are What We Are” is a remake of a Mexican horror film written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau. Let’s get that out of the way first and foremost. Now, I haven’t seen the original so I can’t comment much on the similarities/differences between the two films, other than that from the short synopsis of the original I can see that it actually begins by the death of the FATHER and the older children are boys. So I guess it’s safe to say that Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have changed quite a bit of the story for their version. And it really is THEIR movie, that’s clear from frame one; if you have seen “Stake Land” or “Cold In July” you can see that the visuals as well as the storytelling is quite similar. It’s the Mickle/Damici way. And what that way is, is “slow burn”. The movie gradually turns up the level of dread and darkness, and it’s only in the final act that the real horror begins as the tension reaches the boiling point. And the horrors here don’t come from any supernatural forces nor knife-wielding psychopaths.
Instead, the horror comes from people. This is not a cannibal tribe, nor are they virus-infected flesh-eaters – it’s their RELIGION. This has been the way of this family for centuries, ever since some forefather during a winter of coldness, war and famine decided that they would worship God by eating the flesh of a fellow man. And they don’t do it all the time. As I understood, they only do it once a year – you could call it their extremely fucked-up version of Thanksgiving. And the message of the movie really is in it’s title: we are what we are – this is their way and it will always be their way. Although by the end of the movie – which I will not spoil here – that way seems to have transformed a little bit, into something even more twisted. You could call it evolution of sorts. I know there were plans of making a sequel which may have explored this further but that seems to have been put on hold after a while (Finnish director A.J. Annila who directed “Jade Warrior” and “Sauna” was attached to do it). So the ending is really left for each of us to make our own interpretation on it. And I like that. That’s another Mickle/Damici device: they never over-explain things. All of the minimal exposition we DO get, is actually visual instead of verbal – some flashbacks that show what happened long ago and that’s pretty much it. They don’t underestimate the audiences intelligence. This movie is SMART. And that’s a big deal in horror cinema, I tell you.
Bill Sage as the patriarch of the family makes Frank a real person, very strong in his belief – and that makes him one pretty fucking scary character. And as for the younger cast, I was happy to see that these are some very promising actors; both Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner make us feel the conflict between their teenage curiosity of “is there something else out there?” and their crazy religious upbringing. And Jack Gore who plays the youngest of the bunch, is a believable character and not a “Cujo”-level annoying brat – that’s high praise, if you missed the reference. Michael Parks plays the doctor as very internal and subdued character – a very different approach than a lot of other of Parks’ performances – and it works; honestly, Parks is one of those actors who could read a Sears catalog in a phone booth and he would make it interesting. Kelly McGillis makes her third horror-movie appearance in a row (“Stake Land”, “The Innkeepers”) as the family’s neighbor who is totally oblivious to the twisted activities happening next door and Wyatt Russell has the perfect “aw shucks”-quality as the Deputy who really gets in over his head (it’s also a total opposite of the totally fucked-up character he plays in “Cold In July”, so this Russell kid has some serious range – he’s going places I tell you). It was interesting to see Kassie DePaiva do a cameo as the mother, as she hasn’t been in a horror film since her role as Bobby Joe in “Evil Dead 2” – she has pretty much been acting in soap operas since that time. I didn’t even recognize her at first – only after I saw her name in the credits I had that holy shit!”-moment.
“We Are What We Are” is not for everyone. It’s grim. It’s pessimistic. It’s borderline nihilistic. It shows what effects a warped-out fundamental religion can have on people – and the offspring of those people. But it doesn’t preach – it merely shows it’s hand and makes the audience think. And looking at what’s going on in the world right now, I’d say more thinking is definitely not a bad thing.
Previous “Night Terrors” entries:
- “Someone’s Watching Me!” & “Summer of Fear”
- “Horror of Dracula” & “The Wicker Man”
- “Annabelle” & “Maggie”
- “Prom Night” & “The Fog”
- “Wolfen” & “The Hunger”
- “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, “Sinister”, “Deliver Us From Evil”
- “[REC] 2-4”
- “She-Wolf of London” & “Dracula A.D 1972”
- “Chopping Mall”, “100 Feet”, “Of Unknown Origin”
- “Dolls”, “Spider Baby”, “The Burning”